Director Renny Harlin’s cinematic GPA constantly dips over and under the line between B-movie bliss and C-movie oblivion; sometimes you get shlock as efficient and propulsive as Deep Blue Sea (1999), and sometimes you get a movie like The Covenant (2006), which looks like it made it into theatrical release by the skin of its teeth.
Cleaner, Harlin’s new film, was not so lucky; it’s a DVD premiere in the US despite starring Sam Jackson, Ed Harris, and Eva Mendes. It’s also one of Harlin’s most low-key efforts, not an action movie but a mystery that flirts (though never commits to) character study.
The character in question is Tom Carver (Jackson), a retired cop who runs a heavy-duty chemical cleaning business—they’ll clean up just about anything, he patiently explains, but they get a lot of jobs from messy crime scenes. Harlin introduces us to this line of work over the credits, taking slick, slow-mo inventory of the physical details of the blood-mopping business. (Yes, Jackson is once again on brain detail, though he’s too professional to deem it “some fucked-up repugnant shit”, this time.)
In introducing Tom’s way of life, the movie isn’t exactly evocative, but Harlin’s bid to draw us into the world of the cleaner works, as does the terrific pulp-mystery hook: Tom is called in to clean up a particularly gruesome crime scene in a wealthy part of town, only to find out later that no murder was reported there—he’s been conned into a cover-up, and maybe a frame job, too. Throw in Jackson’s natural charisma, a mysterious woman (Mendes), and Luis Guzman as a surly cop, and you’ve got the makings of a solid B-picture.
But it’s the wrong type of B, apparently, for Harlin. An easier hand at old-school genre machinations—say Carl Franklin, maybe—would accentuate the noir elements of this story (which Harlin mentions in his commentary track), especially Tom’s shadowy past and reluctant, renegade crime-solving. But despite his commentary’s polite insistence that this is a fairly meditative, character-based film, Harlin and screenwriter Matthew Aldrich do reach for generic thriller stylings, mixing in one of those mythical all-inclusive cop-corruption payroll books, half-hearted stabs at familial emotion, and the most obvious secret bad guy this side of Gary Sinise.
Fifteen minutes’ worth of deleted scenes on the DVD have some of the qualities missing from the final film, though not enough to entice with the prospect of a director’s cut. The first few go a little further into Tom’s meticulous world, with a quieter, moodier tone than the rest of the film. Other scenes drop clues that the final film doles out in quick, inelegant flash cuts (it’s as if the movie is flashing back to its special features, rather than earlier scenes). The patience in these scenes shows even more restraint from Harlin, but restraint can only go so far in redeeming the story’s boilerplate second half.
Indeed, this is polished, professional mediocrity, well-shot with lots of crisply ominous whites and the occasional noir shadows; it’s almost proficient to a fault, missing the forest for the trees. As such, Harlin’s commentary track gives the usual lip service to locations, filmmaking techniques, casting, and theme; he seems to enjoy the competent surface of his work without the relish he brings to his best thrillers. In Deep Blue Sea or The Long Kiss Goodnight (both also with Jackson), Harlin was a cleaner; here, he’s just polishing.