At first, Amazon's "Without Remorse" seems to have the exact blueprint as a slew of other revenge action films, like "Jason Bourne" and "John Wick." Michael B. Jordan's John Kelly finds himself on the fringes of society when, following an ill-fated mission during his final tour as an elite Navy SEAL, a violent attack at his Washington, D.C., home leaves his heavily pregnant wife Pam (Lauren London) and their unborn daughter shot to death. He, of course, becomes determined to avenge their deaths.
John, however, soon realizes the deaths of his wife and daughter were just the tip of the iceberg in a sinister plot involving both the Russian and the United States governments.
Yet, as familiar as "Without Remorse" first appears to be — even down to the tone and pacing — there is one element that makes it stand out among films like "Jack Reacher" or even the Jessica Chastain's star vehicle "Ava," which was also very similar.
At first glance, Kelly's rage at losing his wife due to the government's lack of transparency and greed is neither surprising nor confusing. However, the pain and betrayal he specifically feels from the country he serves has a different layer than in other films because it's the age-old story of the broken contract between the United States and the people who literally built the country: Black Americans.
Iinstead of simply casting a Black actor in a lead role originally meant for a white actor, they made sure to incorporate the nuances of John's Blackness into the story.
Since the foundation of this country, Black Americans have served on the front lines, protecting the land and the livelihoods of people who enact harm, violence and terror upon them, well into the present day. From the first person killed in the Boston Massacre — which led to the American Revolution — to the Civil War to the war on terror, Black people (especially those in the military) have been asked or ordered to put their lives on the line for this country without the guarantees of full citizenship or safety that they've more than earned.
To that end, "Without Remorse" goes beyond the typical movie that contains a protagonist on the warpath — though it has no shortage of shootouts, blasts, weaponry and pain with a brooding and enraged man at the center. Instead, John's fury and the steps he takes to enact his revenge have elements rooted in the history of the Black American experience.
In perhaps the most compelling scene from the film, John speaks with his commander and friend, Lt. Cmdr. Greer (Jodie Turner-Smith), about his unrewarded sacrifices.
"I've spent half my life playing their game," he says. "I'm the one who went to hell and did their dirty work. We served a country that didn't love us back because we believed in what it could be. We fought for what America could be, but they crossed the line; they brought their war into my home."
Black people in the military have been asked or ordered to put their lives on the line for this country without the guarantees of full citizenship or safety that they've more than earned.
At its core, the film is a typical antihero origin story — the guy who goes barreling toward danger because he has little left to lose — and John is almost arrogant enough to take on his mission alone. However, when he does need help, he puts his trust in those who haven't betrayed him — namely people who look like him, including Greer and later a Black U.S. marshal who leads him away from a deadly environment.
Overall, the film doesn't reinvent the wheel when it comes to action thrillers. But where it does succeed is presenting a character that is entirely different from either Harrison Ford's or John Krasinski's Jack Ryan, which exist in the same Tom Clancy Universe. While both Jacks are analytical, John is a hands-on guy who gets it done by any means necessary. He wastes no time examining things or thinking critically about his actions.
"Without Remorse" also for the first time expands the Clancy Universe beyond Jack Ryan in a way that will undoubtedly garner new fans. Moreover, instead of simply casting a Black actor in a lead role originally meant for a white actor, screenplay writers Taylor Sheridan and Will Staples, along with director Stefano Sollima, made sure to incorporate the nuances of John's Blackness into the story as defining factors in his identity.
If fans are going to be expected to flock to these sorts of action thrillers time and time again, it is at least fitting that the characters — and certainly characters of color — are more fully fleshed out than the one-dimensional figures that have dominated the box office in recent years. "Without Remorse" isn’t a perfect film, but it starts us all down a good path.