When I was a kid, my folks used to shop at this store called Spag’s. Spag’s was a metro for cheap bastards of every shape and size. It was like Walmart before there was Walmart, if Walmart was located in a bunch of interconnected barns and didn’t give you bags at checkout.
Spag’s would lure “discount seekers” for hundreds of miles around with prices that were lower than anywhere else. Shit was piled everywhere. Every aisle was an OSHA violation and every checkout lane was ten people deep.
It was more like a hive than a store, with people brazenly cutting other people off, carts slamming into one another, and put-upon employees trying to stem the tides of humanity that would cross state lines to get shit cheap. Every day was Black Friday. Every item was snatched off the shelves like it was the last one of its kind on Planet Earth. And no bags. For the pro customer, you knew where to go to grab an empty box from one of the many chained off employee-only areas and thus secure your means of conveyance.
I hated going to Spag’s.
And my dad, unbeknownst to him or any of us at the time, had a little touch of the OCD, so he would navigate the store using the same route every single time. One route to rule us all, one route to find us. One route to bring us all and in the misery bind us. Every single time, making sure that he passed through every department, with no variations.
Well, one exception.
Spag’s had a book section, and when my dad would go to office supplies, he’d allow me to divert one aisle over to the book section. He’d continue on to laundry, dry goods and consumer electronics, I would peruse the book aisle, waiting for him to hit that whole ghastly wing of the Spag’s building — plumbing and electrical and pets — before he passed books on his way to the nightmare checkout area he preferred. My folks weren’t toy people. We didn’t have a lot of money (hence, Spag’s) and they wouldn’t buy me toys, but they rarely said no to books.
The book aisle in Spag’s is where I fell in love with spy stories. It’s where I got all of my John le Carré and Graham Greene and Robert Ludlum and Ken Follett and Jack Higgins and Tom Clancy. It’s where I would hold up a certain mass market paperback to my dad with a look of hope on my face as he came out of dog food with our cart stacked up as high as his chest and he would nod and say “okay.” I still get a little jolt of dopamine thinking about it now, forty years later, because it wasn’t just a book for me, it was salvation. I grew up one of nine kids in a three-bedroom house and books gave me a place to retreat into amidst all the chaos.
We were a military family and very conservative, and that informed many of my views on the subject of international espionage. So now when my more progressive friends look at me cross eyed as I admit to enjoying the genre and seem to miss all the imperialist propaganda, I just shrug. This is holy ground for me. I grew up on stories of spies and spy hunters. Of the Kim Philbys and the Mata Haris. Of impossible missions during the Cold War and the types of contracts only the Mossad would accept. Stories of the KGB and M15 and the CIA. They were my church when I was a little dude.
So, it was a real disappointment to watch Without Remorse on Amazon, which I was giddily excited for. The Michael B. Jordan version of the spy thriller? Sign me up! So many of these stories are damned from the outset by the white savior trope that I was like “cool! Let’s have a Black savior for once,” but I’m still not 100% sure what I watched.
Outside of a frigid wife, this iteration of Without Remorse has almost nothing in common with the revenge thriller that was the original Clancy text. Which, okay, it’s a choice. Not a good choice, but then why try to tie it to the original material? Just for the perceived artificial bump in credibility by having the Tom Clancy name on it? That doesn’t pay dividends at all when you actually watch the movie, realize that it’s a complete mess in just about every way, and come away feeling cheated.
I mean, Michael B. Jordan in the genre Tom Clancy built? You’d think those basic ingredients might coalesce in some way.
For what it’s worth, I don’t think Amazon had the foggiest idea about what this show was either, as evidenced by what the Ukrainian judges would likely label “the dumbest tweet of all time.”
Oh no, baby.
What ARE YOU doing?
And now WE ARE getting inside?
Yeeeeeezus. Stay in school, kids.
So I was watching Without Remorse with my better half and we periodically, wordlessly, kept looking at each other in reaction to the awfulness of it. Then it became funny and we started talking along with it, the suspension of disbelief solidly in the rear view mirror. Painful, terrible choices. Miserable casting. A script that needed about ten more revisions. I don’t often imagine that the legalization of marijuana has negative outcomes until I wonder at how high the production team on this movie was.
I’m not saying the casting was like Young Anakin bad, but one main character, in particular, didn’t have a single believable line delivery. Not one. And I was counting. That’s not the actor’s fault. If the actor has a few bad lines, it’s usually the actor’s fault. If the actor never has a solitary believable line in the whole film, from stem to stern? That’s a casting problem which falls directly on the director’s shoulders. In this case, it’s director Stefano Sollima.
The story, what little there was, revolved around an op in Syria where the CIA sends in Navy SEALs to extract an American prisoner from Syrian rebels. Once they start killing, the SEALs realize the targets are Russian, not Syrian, and they’ve been duped by the CIA.
Having the CIA be the bad guy isn’t, in and of itself, a poor choice, but how it plays out is. There’s a long and confusing paper trail that leads back to Russia, but not modern Russia. Not the FSB with its evil tricks and dastardly effective modern apparatus. No, this leads back to some weird amalgamated Cold War Russia, a monolith. Sadly, depressingly, it views as boring as it sounds, and the speeches? The ones that are supposed to get us to relate to the character? Yeah. Nobody talks like this, guy.
“We served a country that didn’t love us back because we believed in what it could be.”
Yawn. Check, please!
So, Russia, for no damn good reason, and the only ones who can right the wrongs are the wrongers themselves. Hoo-rah! Makes perfect sense!
To get to Russia, the SEALs have to undertake a perilous mission where they’re sold out yet again, mid-flight. During the strife, Michael B. Jordan’s team gets shot down and has to survive a water landing of their passenger jet. Rather than save his breath, Jordan’s Kelly keeps yelling exposition, so we, as the morons who are watching, understand that he has to unshackle their gear from the portion of the plane that’s sinking. We couldn’t possibly put two and two together by, y’know, watching him do it.
Once they make landfall in Russia, for what reason I still don’t remember or never cared about, they are betrayed again. Imagine that! Methinks there may be something rotten in Denmark, Sarge! Such a piss-poor mechanism, and no one wonders how it happens. It’s the military-industrial complex de facto plot device. This happens sometimes. On Downton Abbey, for example, every piece of drama is inspired by someone else eavesdropping with a curious look on their face.
In Without Remorse, it’s being sold out by your own side.
How? Why? You’d think that would be the topic of chatter around the campfire at some point.
Another word kept popping into my mind while I was watching. Abort.
At no time do they suggest aborting. You’re in a defenseless skytube where the left jet engine has just been blown to smithereens by two MiG-35s and they’re pulling back to yet more missiles directly up the butthole of your plane and everyone is still copacetic?
I mean, cool. But a smart person once said that there’s a fine line between bravery and stupidity and unfortunately that’s a line of demarcation that this film all too often finds itself on the wrong side of.
One more example of how the ball gets bobbled.
Let’s backtrack a little to when the Russians were going house to house, knocking off Navy SEALs as retribution for the hit on the Russian arms depot in Aleppo.
Masked men invade the home, shoot the people who are sound asleep in the master bedroom and then one of the masked Russians squares up to the other.
“I’m ready.” He declares.
And he waits calmly as the other masked Russian dude pulls out a plant gun and SHOOTS HIM IN THE NECK, killing him.
And I’m like HOLYYYYYY SHIT!
Wow, I’m thinking, wow. That’s the most hardcore thing I’ve ever seen. This op requires that they kill one of their own and leave him behind as evidence. And the dude was in on it and manned up and was like yes, my life can be over right now for the good of Mother Russia. I will fulfill my duty!
I mean, slow clap from me. That’s a true patriot. We often bandy about the term “I would die for” but this hombre did it. How was he recruited? Did he have a terminal illness? Did his young daughter in Chelyabinsk need a life saving operation and he traded his life for hers? What’s the backstory here? This is fascinating!
We got nada.
It’s the only thing about the movie that felt groundbreaking at all for me and the people who wrote it didn’t even seem to know it happened.
I will say, if you’re going to watch any portion of the film, start at the 1:04 mark and watch until 1:25. That is undoubtedly the best part of the film and is clearly the strength of Sollima’s game because it’s all action and there’s virtually no dialogue. It’s a decent sequence, although some of the motivations and decision making are still a bit murky. Still, good fun, action-wise.
Michael B. Jordan does his best in the role but ultimately it’s a forgettable performance as he’s betrayed by the incompetence of the script even more than his character is subverted by the CIA. The supporting cast is similarly corrupted by the lack of a structure that makes any sense whatsoever, and across the board the performances suffer. In fairness, the action sequences are better than average and if you’re the type of person who just wants the shatter and clang of action without the accompanying need for stakes and story and plot? Well, this movie might be just fine for you.
In the end, it’s generally a loss for all parties. Even my friends who would applaud the fall of what they consider boldfaced American propaganda wouldn’t see this as a win because it’s just such a miss. There’s no moral high ground available in a story where the murder of a pregnant woman elicits no emotional response. Without Remorse, in going to production with such a damningly inadequate script, set the bar low and unfortunately still managed to limbo under it.