It has almost certainly been more than two decades since I last read Tom Clancy’s revenge thriller Without Remorse, but I still remember it as my favorite of his books (all of which I read up through The Bear and the Dragon, and none of which I read after that one came out–and none of which have I read since the early 2000s. This leaves me with the difficult question of whether Clancy’s books are good enough to hold up over time, and whether I ought to clear out a couple of feet of shelf space…). The plot is striking, perhaps especially for a book by an author who was known for his technical precision more than anything else. In it, Navy SEAL John Kelly meets a girl running from a past of drugs (and prostitution? it’s been a long time, so I don’t remember). In a moment of hubris he asks her to show him her old stomping grounds, and in the course of the visit gets her killed and himself put in the hospital. The rest of the novel is the story of his revenge on the drug dealers.
In 2021, Amazon released a film adaptation of the novel starring Michael B. Jordan and titled (I assume for marketing purposes) Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse. Though the key plot device is there–Kelly’s pregnant wife is murdered and he goes out for revenge–little else is recognizable in my hazy memories of the book. [Spoilers from here on out!] Instead of a chance encounter with drug dealers, Kelly’s wife is murdered as part of a larger geopolitical game organized by the Secretary of Defense (or Homeland Security? probably not Agriculture…) intended to stir up tension between Russia and the United States to restore the glory days of the Cold War when all Americans were united against a common enemy, instead of bitterly polarized and fighting primarily among ourselves. The bulk of the film is Kelly chasing down the actual gunman, whom he at first believes to be a Russian agent only to find that said gunman is working for/with the CIA. Kelly then turns his guns on the true villain, with an assist from his commanding officer Karen Greer and unlikeable but apparently honest CIA officer Robert Ritter.
For what it’s worth, I don’t know that Tom Clancy would have objected to many of these changes. Perhaps the two obvious changes in the race of John Kelly (played by Willem Dafoe in 1994’s Clear and Present Danger) and the gender of Karen Greer (though to be fair, it’s unclear whether she is a replacement for the Jim Greer character played by James Earl Jones in the early 90s Clancy films or his niece, as suggested at one point in this film) would certainly not have bothered Clancy at all.
I’ll have to think more about the change in plot from organized crime as the villain to a corrupt government official and where that fits in to the original Clancy canon. Certainly Clancy wasn’t afraid to draw on either for villains in his stories. But there does seem to be something different here. When a government official was the villain in, say the film version of Clear and Present Danger, it was also very clear that the villain was a bad actor in an otherwise competent and virtuous government. In the modern Without Remorse, it is… less clear that such is the case. I think we’re to take away the idea that the entire government is somehow rotten, regardless of a few virtuous individuals who work for the government. There’s a strand of cynicism in the modern film that is largely absent from the original canon. Even the mid-credits scene at the end offering both a sequel and some kind of optimism (and also, I assume, a tie-in to the Amazon TV Jack Ryan series), it is clear that this is going to be an optimism based on an international organization that is partly facilitated by, but clearly distinct from, existing national institutions. Again, I’ll have to think about whether this is out of the spirit of Clancy works. And I suppose I’ll have to re-read some of them too…
As for the apparently common criticism that Without Remorse is just a generic action movie that is elevated by Michael B. Jordan’s acting chops, I’d suggest that such reviewers have forgotten that a good Tom Clancy movie is exactly that. I love The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games, and Clear and Present Danger as much as the next person (let us not speak of The Sum of All Fears, either the book or the movie). But unique and outstanding action movies they weren’t. They were good, solid, fun action films. Without Remorse is certainly a solid action film, though perhaps it’s less ‘fun’ than its predecessors (and I’ll admit I’ve not seen Shadow Recruit, so I can’t speak to its quality). So there’s no need to unload on this film for that reason.
A just a word on the theme (which applies to the original novel as well): what is a Christian to make of the revenge quest? The religion that teaches that we should turn the other cheek becomes more difficult when the wrong is done to others, rather than directly to us. What’s more, Without Remorse isn’t the straight-up revenge fantasy that the novel was. Kelly goes after the villains with official government sanction. So yes, his motivation is revenge–as he repeatedly tells us. But his actions are within the established processes for achieving justice. As Christians we need to remember to account for both when we’re thinking about what to do. Both our inner desires and the way we do things in the world need to be held to God’s standard–one should not be allowed to dominate the other. The good news is, we worship a God of justice who promises that all wrongs will one day be set right. Yes, we should work for justice (rather than revenge) in this world with proper dispositions and through legitimate means, but we should also realize that at best justice today will be partial and incomplete. And as far as it goes, Without Remorse is a great picture of the partial/incomplete nature of justice in this world. There simply is no acceptable body count to make up for the loss of a loved one, and the promise of future action (or a sequel) can’t smooth that over.
Dr. Coyle Neal is co-host of the City of Man Podcast and an Associate Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, MO