Jack Ryan has long been fashioned as the American equivalent to James Bond. It’s a flattering comparison for the late novelist Tom Clancy’s most famous character, not least of all because Ryan is a modest CIA analyst continually thrust into geopolitical turmoil against his will—not some womanizing master of global espionage. But the resemblance has some basis in the way the characters have been handled in Hollywood. Much like the James Bond franchise, the Ryan-led movies aren’t beholden to one actor to keep it running. Four different stars portrayed Ryan on the big screen in three decades: Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck, and Chris Pine. A fifth, John Krasinski, has brought the character to life on an Amazon Prime series. (“Less sex!” is how Krasinski believes Ryan measures up to Bond.)
Krasinski has been a different type of Ryan, in that the character is unnervingly swole and doesn’t waste time picking a fight with the president of Venezuela. (Like anything Clancy-related, the wonky, right-leaning politics of Amazon’s Jack Ryan is best encapsulated by its borderline parodic title sequence.) It’s as if the Amazon series actually wants its title character to be more like Bond, which not only betrays Clancy’s vision for Ryan, but disregards another one of the writer’s ass-kicking creations. John Clark, the Clancy character who starts out as a Navy SEAL, is, in the author’s own words, “Ryan’s dark side” with no qualms about getting his hands dirty. While Willem Dafoe and Liev Schreiber played Clark in Clear and Present Danger and The Sum of All Fears, respectively, they were supporting roles ceding most of the spotlight to Ryan. But if anyone in the so-called Ryanverse will get the full action-hero treatment on-screen, it should be this guy.
A stand-alone Clark movie has been in the works since the ’90s, but after decades of development hell, it’s finally arrived. The first thing Amazon’s Without Remorse did right was finding an imposing actor the audience can buy into as something of a one-man army: There’s little suspension of belief in the hands and very toned biceps of Michael B. Jordan. (Piss off the dude who’s played Adonis Creed and Erik Killmonger at your own risk.) The second was enlisting a filmmaker whose instincts lean more toward the gritty, adult-oriented thrillers that are in tragically short supply in the age of superheroes. These days, one of the best orchestrators of this dying breed of movie can be found in Italy.
Stefano Sollima isn’t exactly a household name, but he’s one of the few directors working today who can capture underworld criminal enterprises and military-sanctioned violence with uncompromising brutality at a blockbuster scale. While Sollima cut his teeth working on the Italian crime drama Gomorrah, his first notable impression stateside was helming the (admittedly unexpected) Sicario sequel, Day of the Soldado. This is the type of film that features a suicide bombing, Josh Brolin torturing prisoners, and Benicio del Toro firing approximately 100 rounds into an enemy target within the first 30 minutes. To say Day of the Soldado is an acquired taste would be an understatement, but the movie’s ultraviolence serves to underline the widespread trauma enabled by the forever war in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. (That a movie this nihilistic came out of the major studio pipeline is something else, and its release in the middle of the Trump administration was hard to stomach.)
Sollima followed up Day of the Soldado by returning to the small screen with ZeroZeroZero, an Amazon coproduction about the lucrative and illicit world of drug trafficking that, incidentally, spared no expense with its filmmaking. The eight-episode miniseries, which was shot on location in New Orleans, Mexico, Senegal, Morocco, and Italy, tracks an international cocaine shipment and the major players behind it: the buyers (an Italian mafia), the sellers (a Mexican cartel), and the brokers (Louisiana shipping magnates). Unlike other crime dramas that at least center part of the story on protagonists trying to take down the enterprise, ZeroZeroZero is all about characters motivated by insatiable greed who won’t let a little thing like morality get in the way of consolidating power—no matter the body count. As cocreator and self-described showrunner, Sollima directs the first two episodes and establishes the show’s aesthetic, which is basically a more broadly appealing version of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Too Old to Die Young. ZeroZeroZero received criminally little fanfare when it released in 2020, but make no mistake: It was one of the best shows of the year.
Given his promising résumé in this space, Sollima directing an R-rated movie called Without Remorse feels like a self-fulfilling prophecy. The film lives up to its title early, as recently retired Navy SEAL John Kelly (Jordan; not yet going by the moniker John Clark) is nearly killed by Russian special forces in his home—unfortunately, the attack leaves Kelly’s pregnant wife, Pam (Lauren London), dead. Without Remorse can feel like a throwback to ’90s action thrillers, which is mostly to its benefit, but reviving the dead wife trope to set Clark on his revenge path would have been best left in the past.
Getting past that outdated cliché, though, allows Jordan to lean into his physicality without the type of restraints required in Black Panther or Creed. An early highlight sees Clark trail a crooked Russian diplomat to Dulles International Airport, douse the car in gasoline, set it on fire, and jump inside for a very swift interrogation where the only mercy he offers is a quicker death. (The sequence must’ve been especially thrilling for Jordan, a noted pyromaniac.) It’s less Jack Ryan, more Jack Bauer on His Worst Day Ever.
The attack on Clark’s home is part of increasing escalations between the United States and Russia, and it’s clear there is at least one high-level party working in the shadows to bring the two nations to the brink of war. But there’s little intrigue in the half-baked geopolitical machinations of this film, which finds most of its surface pleasures in Clark’s John Wick–style vengeance streak. Considering Clancy’s politics, which have aged like sour milk and seen Krasinski’s take on Ryan (not unfairly!) likened to a red-state hero, it’s perhaps best to take Without Remorse’s lead and luxuriate in, say, Clark taking off his shirt before beating a bunch of prison guards in full SWAT gear to a pulp.
Without Remorse doesn’t hide its intentions to set up a sequel, potentially expanding the Ryanverse in a more action-oriented direction befitting the video games that bear the author’s name. Whether Sollima returns for another Clark-starring film remains to be seen, but given he was previously tapped to direct a Call of Duty adaptation that’s currently up in the air, Without Remorse might as well have been a glorified audition tape.
Sollima’s brand of pulpy, R-rated violence isn’t for everyone and certainly limits the amount of eyeballs for his work. But as a director making the kind of big-budget action thrillers that are few and far between at the multiplex—heck, even Paramount ended up selling Without Remorse to Amazon—it’s hard not to root for Sollima to keep doing his thing. Losing gruesome, gripping tales about the human cost of power and greed from the moviegoing landscape should fill anyone with remorse.