Crude and mostly pathetic, Codename: The Cleaner makes the case that action-comedy has run its course as a genre. For one thing, Les Mayfield’s film rips off most every other action-comedy film of the past decade, especially those starring Martin Lawrence and Jackie Chan, and including Mayfield’s own (Blue Streak and The Man). From its weak premise to its boring action to its unpleasant jokes, this movie fulfills the worst expectations of January releases: it’s awful.
Ostensibly, Codename tells the story of a man who finds himself. First, Jake (Cedric the Entertainer) finds himself in a hotel room bed with a bloody corpse and without any memory of who he is or how he got there. He goes through wholly tedious usual motions: he mutters to himself (“Shit… shit… Breathe beauty in, breathe nasty out”), he checks himself in the mirror (“What am I doing here?”), and he discovers a briefcase full of cash, easily opened. With that, he realizes that the bloody fellow lying next to him is probably a sign that he’s in trouble too, and so Jake stumbles all over himself to get out the door—with briefcase and with brief pause to engage in a “comic” exchange with a mini bar attendant (Rick Tae), who asks if he wants his refilled. Jake is astounded: “Reefer in my mini bar!?” “Asian” English pronunciation humor: it always kills.
Codename: The Cleaner
Lucy Liu, Cedric the Entertainer, DeRay Davis, Nicollette Sheridan, Mark Dacascos
(New Line Cinema)
US theatrical: 5 Jan 2007 (General release)
From here, Jake’s quest for his identity galumphs along at a turtleish speed. The first option arrives in the form of sultry Diane (Nicollette Sheridan), who hustles him into her car and claims to be his wife. Their obvious mismatch—she’s super rich and haughty, he’s kind of street—seems designed as humor, as Jake says repeatedly how surprised he is to live in a mansion and be married to a freaky white woman (“Am I Lionel Richie?”), but mostly, it occasions the Nicollette Sheridan set piece. That is, she appears in pretty little pink underwear, snaps her thong a couple of times, and proceeds to seduce “Big Jake” while he squeals about “Little Jake.” Impressed as well that he has a butler who fetches Skittles for him and a personal doctor as well, Jake is crestfallen when he overhears Diane and the doctor plotting to shoot him full of drugs that might bring on cardiac arrest (his heart will “explode”). And so he runs away with the briefcase, again.
A meeting with a second woman suggests a second possible past: sexy, “feisty” diner waitress Gina (Lucy Liu) reports that Jake is janitor. This after he envisions her as his “boo,” a soft-lit, slow-motioned lover who just can’t wait to get his face into her crotch. Given that she’s a little too “feisty” (she slaps him silly when she hears he thinks he has a white wife), Jake believes a third option, owing to seeming flashbacks that put him in an elite military unit, shooting at seeming bad guys and blowing up buildings.
These violent, dark excursions provide the “action” part of the action-comedy, but they also offer a particular joke, that Cedric would be involved in any such activity. The movie provides for other such opportunities—in fact, it rather devolves into a string of scenes in which Cedric/Jake appears out of place, like a string of entirely unrelated ideas derived from Beverly Hills Cop: he’s pursued by a number of people who believe he has a super-important computer chip, he’s somehow involved with a video games-making company, he’s subjected to a sex-predator joke where he’s called “Mandingo,” and he fights off a slew of FBI agents, both upright and villainous.
During one effort to hide out, Jake pops onto a stage to perform alongside a Dutch clogging troupe (how someone thought this was just hilarious is worth a moment of pondering). He has friends who are actually janitors, including one who aspires to rap stardom as “the clean dirty rapper” (DeRay Davis): his subject matter? Plungers and mops. And oh yes, Jake’s most competent-seeming adversary is a fierce CEO who also happens to be a lethal martial arts expert, Hauck (Mark Decascos, first nominee in 2007 for the performer most in need of a new agent) and occasions yet another race identity joke, something to do with being “Creole.” None of these various elements come together to make sense. And yes, Jake does remember who he is.
That you don’t care about the plot is something of a given for such profits-minded exercises. No one imagines that participants sign on to work with the director or because they couldn’t put down the screenplay. The cynicism that comes built into such generic indulgences is more expected than disappointing. But still, you might wonder, how did Will Patton, an actor of some wit and grace not so long ago, has come to the point that he’s playing third fiddle to the man who yodels “Ricola” as if it’s a punch line. A friend of mine suggests that The Postman was the turning point for Patton, though you might also argue for Fled or even Copycat. I like to remember him in Desperately Seeking Susan, The Rapture, and Sam Shepard plays in New York. He was stunning, once.