Reviews

Cleaner

Director Harlin's cinematic GPA constantly dips over and under the line between B-movie bliss and C-movie oblivion.


Cleaner

Director: Renny Harlin
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Ed Harris, Eva Mendes, Luis Guzman, Keke Palmer
Distributor: Sony
MPAA rating: R
First date: 2007
US DVD Release Date: 2008-05-27

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.

4
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Reading Pandemics

Pandemic, Hope, Defiance, and Protest in 'Romeo and Juliet'

Shakespeare's well known romantic tale Romeo and Juliet, written during a pandemic, has a surprisingly hopeful message about defiance and protest.

Film

A Family Visit Turns to Guerrilla Warfare in 'The Truth'

Catherine Deneuve plays an imperious but fading actress who can't stop being cruel to the people around her in Hirokazu Koreeda's secrets- and betrayal-packed melodrama, The Truth.

Music

The Top 20 Punk Protest Songs for July 4th

As punk music history verifies, American citizenry are not all shiny, happy people. These 20 songs reflect the other side of patriotism -- free speech brandished by the brave and uncouth.

Books

90 Years on 'Olivia' Remains a Classic of Lesbian Literature

It's good that we have our happy LGBTQ stories today, but it's also important to appreciate and understand the daunting depths of feeling that a love repressed can produce. In Dorothy Strachey's case, it produced the masterful Olivia.

Music

Indie Rocker Alpha Cat Presents 'Live at Vox Pop' (album stream)

A raw live set from Brooklyn in the summer of 2005 found Alpha Cat returning to the stage after personal tumult. Sales benefit organizations seeking to end discrimination toward those seeking help with mental health issues.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

'Avengers: Endgame' Faces the Other Side of Loss

Whereas the heroes in Avengers: Endgame stew for five years, our pandemic grief has barely taken us to the after-credit sequence. Someone page Captain Marvel, please.

Music

Between the Grooves of Nirvana's 'Nevermind'

Our writers undertake a track-by-track analysis of the most celebrated album of the 1990s: Nirvana's Nevermind. From the surprise hit that brought grunge to the masses, to the hidden cacophonous noise-fest that may not even be on your copy of the record, it's all here.

Music

Deeper Graves Arrives via 'Open Roads' (album stream)

Chrome Waves, ex-Nachtmystium man Jeff Wilson offers up solo debut, Open Roads, featuring dark and remarkable sounds in tune with Sisters of Mercy and Bauhaus.

Featured: Top of Home Page

The 50 Best Albums of 2020 So Far

Even in the coronavirus-shortened record release schedule of 2020, the year has offered a mountainous feast of sublime music. The 50 best albums of 2020 so far are an eclectic and increasingly "woke" bunch.

Books

First Tragedy, Then Farce, Then What?

Riffing off Marx's riff on Hegel on history, art historian and critic Hal Foster contemplates political culture and cultural politics in the age of Donald Trump in What Comes After Farce?

Reviews

HAIM Create Their Best Album with 'Women in Music Pt. III'

On Women in Music Pt. III, HAIM are done pretending and ready to be themselves. By learning to embrace the power in their weakest points, the group have created their best work to date.

Music

Amnesia Scanner's 'Tearless' Aesthetically Maps the Failing Anthropocene

Amnesia Scanner's Tearless aesthetically maps the failing Anthropocene through its globally connected features and experimental mesh of deconstructed club, reggaeton, and metalcore.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.