Spy/Action movie fans are living in a post-Jason Bourne world. They probably don’t think about it much, though, because even before Bourne exited the stage in 2016 with no promise of coming back, there were already several other “man with a particular set of skills” franchises to invest in. This continues apace. In addition to the ongoing James Bond canon, there has been good multi-film work from Tom Cruise, Keanu Reeves and so many others. There have even been a few genuinely fun one-offs. Charlize Theron’s “Atomic Blonde” comes to mind. Ben Affleck’s “The Accountant” is another. This corner of cinema is set aside for the interrogation of morally gray characters and topics. It’s also very much a style over substance environment. How fast you clear a room is as important as your justification for doing so.
“Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse,” out now on Amazon Prime, stars Michael B. Jordon as a retired Navy Seal caught up in an escalation of tensions between the United States and Russia. Jordon’s character John Kelly pays a heavy price for his proximity to these high-level games, which puts him on the payback path. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before. Tom Clancy’s name is part of the title for a reason, but John Kelly is not Jack Ryan. In fact, the most Jack Ryan person on the cast, at least as far as jobs go, is Jamie Bell. He’s the CIA guy, but we are taught not to like him very early on.
Structurally, Ritter and Kelly nurse a growing mutual grudge that is supposed to distract us long enough to set up the bigger reveals, but exactly zero of the surprises work. Everything is obvious from the start. You know immediately which good guy is actually the bad guy, and you know how it will all end for John Kelly. It will end with sequels, of course. The action scenes in “Without Remorse” are good and Jordon pulls off the reluctant but efficient killer thing very capably. I just hope his talents, as an actor and a tough guy, get put to better use going forward.
By contrast, “Wrath of Man,” out now in theaters, approaches the balletic assassin archetype from the other side of the law. Jason Statham’s character, H, is a criminal by trade but also a loving father with a code of honor that tempers his ruthlessness somewhat. Like John Kelly, he finds himself facing a personal tragedy that demands a kind of justice only he can deliver. H’s background is mysterious in that we don’t really know where he got his training, but he clearly has a way with guns and is proficient in several forms of precise, effortless murdering.
In the seasoned hands of director Guy Ritchie, “Wrath of Man” unspools in a cool, non-linear collage of perspectives. I liked how he moved me around in the timeline and in the headspace of the world he built. But “Wrath of Man” veers too often into cliché and lazy writing. The opening scene in the armored truck company where H embeds himself is filled with frat house dialogue that is an excruciating, 15-minute-long cringe. And, for reasons I cannot understand, Ritchie later employs that tired heist sequence trope where the planning montage overlays the execution with back-and-forth cuts. I don’t know how any director does that with a straight face these days, after “Horrible Bosses 2” lampooned it so perfectly.
Both of these action thrillers offer stylish violence and leads that are fun to root for. If neither character rises to the top of the genre, it’s because, as the technical disappointments add up and overwhelm the experience, any sympathy we have for their actions just fades away.