Judge Daryl Loomis is the world's greatest cleaner, unless it means cleaning his bathroom...that's gross.
The blood may be wiped away, but the truth still remains.
I've worked a lot of jobs in my life: office work, construction, pyramid schemes, and many more. The most disgusting, however, was at a beet cannery. Wearing that rubber suit, wading through purple juice and looking down a conveyor belt waiting for "defects," has made it so that I can't stand the smell of the vegetable, let alone eat one. Even writing about it is making me sick. Much as I hated that job, it doesn't come close to comparing to what tasks some people will do to take home a paycheck. For my money, the most horrible jobs are those that deal directly with death. The thought of being a coroner or a mortician is bad enough, but it takes a special kind of person to feel the urge to clean up after a violent death. One day would be enough to drive me straight to the shrink, but this special person is the subject of Renny Harlin's (Cliffhanger) first project away from the action and horror genres he's known for.
Facts of the Case
Tom Carver (Samuel L. Jackson, Hard Eight) is a cleaner, though not the type that'll wash your socks. He has one of the most gut-wrenching jobs on the planet: cleaning up the remains of death, whether it is natural, suicide, or homicide. He's not some kind of morbid freak, however, who gets off on scraping gore from the walls. Carver is a single father and an ex-cop who quit his corrupted force and tries to help people this way. One day, Tom is hired by the force to clean up a homicide and, in doing the thorough job that only he can, realizes that he may have eliminated evidence vital to the case. His sense of justice rising anew, Tom becomes embroiled in a conspiracy that may go all the way to the top of the force.
I have to give Renny Harlin credit for one thing: he assembled quite a cast for Cleaner. Had the cast been matched with tighter writing and more consistent direction, he might have really had something. No matter how good the performances are (and they're pretty good all around), they can't be effective without a good script. What starts as a reasonably believable story about an everyman ex-cop who gets in over his head turns, by the final act, into a gigantic MacGuffin, one that takes over an hour of your time before the last few minutes when reality finally emerges. This reality, however, has no reference earlier in the film and it makes that first hour feel like an utter waste of time.
While, technically, the synopsis above describes what this movie is about, there are three distinct stories in Cleaner, and each could have been a fine film in its own right. All together, however, they make a convoluted mess that doesn't even fill 90 minutes. First, we have a story of police payoffs, rampant corruption, and cops abusing their power to serve their own ends. This connects very loosely to the family story of Tom and his daughter, Ruth (Keke Palmer), who wants to know how her mom died and, more important to her, how her mom's killer died. Tom wants to keep the painful truths away from his daughter but, in so doing, Ruth can't trust her father anymore. The relationship between Ruth and Tom is the only believable one in the film and, if Harlin had stuck with this story exclusively, he may have had a very strong father-daughter movie. Unfortunately, all of the above is tossed out the window for the third story, which begins after about 70 minutes. Any mention of this part will spoil the ending. Suffice it to say that it comes out of thin air and, even in Harlin's commentary on the disc, he makes no attempt to justify it.
Harlin has made his name over the years off blistering action films, though, and not good stories. He's very successful at this and, in his commentary, discusses how his desire to make a more serious, toned-down film led him to Cleaner. I appreciate Harlin's need to grow as a director, but his stylistic choices are much closer to the same old action and horror he's always done. Many scenes are shot from behind curtains and around walls, making the audience feel like the actors are in some kind of danger. They aren't; they're just doing normal stuff. He builds a lot of suspense for nothing and, because there's nothing to release the tension from, almost every scene feels incomplete. Likewise, he uses a fast editing style full of close-ups and quick cuts. This is reminiscent of the so-called "hip-hop montages" that Darren Aronofsky employed to major success for his Requiem for a Dream. Aronofsky used this device to dehumanize the process of drug use and hammer home that his characters are much more than the chemicals they put in their bodies. Harlin, on the other hand, uses it to show Tom coming home from work and sitting down to some casserole that Ruth made. It's a silly and overdone way to show repetition and, in general, Harlin is too conscious of his own style for any of it to work. The entire film is edited too fast without adding anything to the film and it undermines what, otherwise, are very nicely shot scenes.
Sony's release of Cleaner is very solid all around but, unfortunately, its quality exacerbates the problems with the film. The transfer looks great, showing all the deep color and details in the unusually wide aspect ratio. Harlin uses the space well; it's just too bad that we don't get time to enjoy the space before it cuts away to another pointless montage. The sound is equally good. It's crisp through all the channels, making strong use of the surround speakers without drowning out the dialogue. The extras are slim, but interesting. A set of deleted scenes shows that there really was more to the story than was presented in the final product. I'm all for brevity in films, but removing the steak and keeping the sizzle is the wrong direction to go. Renny Harlin's commentary, which I've mentioned a couple of times, is a cogent and interesting look at his intentions with the film and the strength of the performances. If only his vision was closer to what appeared on screen, we might have had something.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I may have a lot of negative things to say about Cleaner, but the performances are a big positive. Ed Harris (A History of Violence) and Luis Guzmán (Out of Sight) both do very well, Keke Palmer is a promising young actress, and Eva Mendes (Training Day) is, for once, used as more than a pretty face. Even Robert Forrester (Mulholland Drive) shows his face. This is an excellent ensemble cast that, given more to work with, could have made something very good.
I'm not much of a fan of action movies, so I've never expected much from a Renny Harlin film. Cleaner is better than I could have hoped, but it's still not that good. For those who like acting ensembles and, especially, those actors in this picture, there isn't a strong enough story to enjoy. Those attracted to Renny Harlin's action spectaculars will find no explosions and very few gunshots to satisfy them.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio commentary with director Renny Harlin
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