‘Without Remorse’ a joyless product of American exceptionalism

In their contortions of the spoken language, labyrinthine plots, and wanton insularity, Tom Clancy’s novels are stranger than Henry James’. A well-meaning, deluded Marist brother who served as our tenth grade English teacher thought  by assigning airport fiction he could inspire us to read. It didn’t play. The Cardinal of the Kremlin mystified me more than the only “serious” novel assigned, Crime and Punishment. Discovering John le Carré much later, I stumbled on a truism: Clancy suffers from the pathological humorless that is a characteristic of American suspense/thriller novelists. He takes his missiles and codes and shit seriously; to include a joke would be to mock the American Way. Defending Freedom and Truth requires speeches, not bon mots. By contrast le Carré’s scrofulous alcoholics know counterintelligence in the service of the Crown is a load of codswallop; they serve the Crown because what else is there to do but pretend the UK matters in the game of geopolitics.

The quietly feral Michael K. Jordan is too smart an actor, I’d think, to accept garbage like the adaptation of Clancy’s 1993 novel Without Remorse, but here he is, glowering and pursing his lips as a Navy SEAL whose personal body count gets him no closer to absolving him for the sin of believing this crap deserves allegiance. Dispatched to Aleppo to save a CIA agent, John Kelly (Jordan) and his team are ambushed by Russian military posing as Syrians. They survive for them and their families to become successful targets for assassination later. What unfolds is a development of such neon-bright obviousness that you gotta wonder how none of the spooks and spook-adjacent brass, including John’s friend Lt. Commander Karen Greer (Jodie Turner-Smith), figured out the machinations of the superpowers before the audience; but the real-life stupidity of CIA directors and apparatchiks, as chronicled by Tim Weiner comes as no surprise, so maybe His Clancyness was right after all.

Because Clancyland requires men to signal their heteronormativity without doing much about it, Kelly has a wife (Lauren London) to whom he returns after his missions; the second we learn she’s pregnant, though, we know she is, to quote the title of a Cold War-in-eclipse-era flick, marked for death. Almost fatally wounded in the shootout, Kelly meets up with Greer, who defends him against the expected perfidious attacks on his loyalty, and talks to Secretary of Defense Thomas Clay, whom the audience knows is a weasel because he parts his hair from the wrong side: the same way we knew in 1984 who was gay in music videos by the choice of which ear to hang the earring. Before this even happens, though, Kelly kills a Russian diplomat who gives up the name of a former Spetznaz guy whom Kelly will use as a bargaining chip when he is invariably sent to prison for the murder. He and Greer convince Clay and CIA officer Robert Ritter (Jamie Bell, as coldly blond as Kim Novak) to let him and a new team Halo jump into Murmansk to capture this Victor Rykov before another Iron Curtain descends over Europe.

This parsing is more than Without Remorse deserves. Written in 1993 after a former CIA head lost his bid for re-election to an Arkansian draft dodger, Clancy’s “book” happily wallows in nostalgia for cooked-up differences between the Soviet Union and America and for the slaughter of peoples ancillary to the brinkmanship. As directed with Bataan death march solemnity by Stefano Sollima, this adaptation treats its source material with Talmudic reverence. Foreigners are killed in foreign lands. They aren’t people: they’re bodies knifed, bacilli sniped at, things blown to meat sauce. To give characters a toenail’s worth of dimension in the Clancyverse is to sully the holy cause. The audience knows when Kelly’s mad after Sollima isolates him in medium shot aboard a chopper, wreathed in red light. Without Remorse is the sort of literal-minded balderdash where if an early scene shows Kelly playing chess it’s not because he loves chess, not because he loves chess in itself: no, Sollima shows it because we know Kelly’s going to make a chess metaphor later.

“We believed in what it could be; we fought for what America could be,” Kelly solemnizes to Greer, in what is screenwriters Taylor Sheridan and Will Staples’ update of their demilitarized zone of a literary property for the BLM era. Possibly Jordan and Turner-Smith accepted their roles because their presences worked as an explicit redress of whitewashing going back to the OSS years. But they accept the film on its terms, and what plays out onscreen is a joyless ballet reflecting American mythmakers’ choreography of violence. As I hinted earlier, the Steven Seagal pictures whose titles Without Remorse evoke at least signified nothing beyond themselves; as their budgets swelled, they even boasted scenarios in which Tommy Lee Jones amiably crunched on decent one-liners. Amazon-hosted productions like Without Remorse are products of American exceptionalism: only our collective fealty to fictions we tell ourselves could have produced carnage so abstracted that the moral arc of the universe contracts. To quote Kelly, “They’re gonna play by my rules now.”

GRADE: F

One thought on “‘Without Remorse’ a joyless product of American exceptionalism

  1. I nearly let a couple of guardedly positive reviews talk me into watching this—even in spite of the dreary-looking forced trailer that I keep seeing whenever I go on to Prime to watch Golden Girls—so thanks for the warning.

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