A lot of people watched Sicario, but no one was more impressed by the film than director Stefano Sollima, who has since dedicated his career to mimicking it. Not only did Sollima direct the actual sequel — Sicario: Day of the Soldado — but he also brought the same, spare style to his terrific crime series ZeroZeroZero, and now, to Amazon's Without Remorse.
Watch Without Remorse trailer here
But what worked marvellously in the past has proven to be the absolute worst approach this time around. Sollima's minimalist style simply doesn't translate to Tom Clancy's maximalist world — the Ryanverse. He has dealt with themes of institutional corruption before, but he puts that on the back burner in Without Remorse, a film that is stitched together by a series of action set pieces with the barest hints of a plot.
As an action director, his bare-bones style leaves a lot to be desired. In many ways, Sollima represents the utopian ideal of what many, including myself, often desire of mainstream Hollywood — filmmaking that refuses to conform to familiar old tricks. But there's a reason why Nicolas Winding Refn never actually directed a James Bond film, despite having come very close at one point — as tantalising as the prospect might sound, finding a common ground between his arthouse sensibilities and Bond's bombast would have been be too wide a chasm to cross.
The closest analogy I can think of also involves Refn, and his 2011 cult classic Drive. Marketed as an action-heist film in the vein of the Fast & Furious franchise, the film earned a 'C-' CinemaScore from audiences, despite glowing critical reviews. An angry woman actually filed a lawsuit against the distributor for the 'misleading' trailer that they cut. I can imagine baffled Boomers tuning into Without Remorse and contemplating legal action as well. Not because it's bad — it isn't; it's mediocre — but because it really isn't what you'd expect.
A blatant attempt to appeal to a younger demographic — as has become rather common these days, the protagonist has been racially overhauled here — Without Remorse bears little resemblance to Clancy's Cold War thrillers. Michael B Jordan stars as John Clark, the writer's second most popular character, after Jack Ryan, who has a series that airs on the same streamer.
Previously played on film by Willem Dafoe and Liev Schreiber, John Clark gets an origin story in Without Remorse. It establishes, in its opening scene, not only his formidable physicality, but also his ideology. We watch as multiple members of his SEAL team are assassinated one by one, in abruptly structured scenes. When they come for Clark, they find his pregnant wife instead.
Her brutal murder compels him to go rogue. This might seem like a tired trope in spy thrillers, but it's really radical, if you consider it in an Indian context. While our industry has virtually made it impossible to question institutions, here's a movie, muddled as it might be, that features a protagonist who not only actively turns his back on his nation, but also questions how men and women like him have been exploited by it. "I'll show them what a pawn can do to a king," he says in one scene, before unleashing a tirade of vengeful violence that attracts the attention of the President and his cronies.
But Without Remorse, before being dumped on Amazon, appears to have been designed as a PG-13 film. There is violence — the movie devotes more time to gunfights than actual conversations — but it's all very sanitised. The pacing, meanwhile, makes it seem like an assembly cut — not at all elegant like its protagonist, but almost mechanical.
This is surprising, considering the high pedigree of talent involved. Besides Jordan, who is an incredibly charismatic star, and Sollima, a director with proven skills, the film boasts of the Oscar-nominated Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) as one of its writers, and in a somewhat stunning turn of events, Sigur Ros frontman Jonsi as the composer. But this might be among the weakest projects that any of them have been involved in, especially in the last five years.
Without Remorse ends with a whiff of brewing sequel, and I'd hope they heed the title as a piece of advice whenever they return.