Cleaner (2007) dir. Renny Harlin
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Ed Harris, Eva Mendes
“Cleaner” is Renny Harlin’s best film since “Cliffhanger”. Ok, that’s not saying much considering his not-so-stellar output which includes, “Long Kiss Goodnight”, “Driven” and "The Covenant". “Cleaner” is a clever investigative cop flick about a man set-up for murder who must solve the case to clear his name – with the hook that the man actually cleaned up the murder he was set up for.
Harlin effortlessly creates a slick look with decent production value, on what likely was a fraction of the budget which someone like Gregory Hoblit (“Untraceable”) would have gotten. The fact that Harlin keeps getting work in the low to mid-level range of action films is a testament to his discipline and experience. And so, after all the famous debacles he’s been involved with over the years, it seems he now knows what do with a good script.
“Cleaner” is indeed a good script - not great - but it’s decent enough for Harlin to make even better. The film tells the story of Tom Carver (Samuel L. Jackson) an ex-cop who now makes a living as a ‘cleaner’ of crime scenes. Imagine CSI, after the cool forensic guys do their scientific work, Tom Carver has the dirtiest job of cleaning up the mess. Writer Matthew Aldrich’s opening voiceover describes how the burden of the clean up is always left with the grieving family. Carver not only cleans up the blood, but contributes to cleansing their hearts and souls of the trauma. The metaphors don’t run too deep, but instantly gives flesh to our hero.
One day, Carver gets a job to clean up an especially bloody murder scene in an opulent mansion. It’s an anonymous job, but Carver does the work anyway. The next day, Carver discovers a once prominent police chief is gone missing, and whose address is the same house he cleaned the day before. Carver seems to have been targeted to help cover-up a premeditated murder. Quickly Carver discovers a connection between the victim and his own shady past as cop, Carver suddenly sees himself as a potential scapegoat. Carver’s investigation digs up dirt on his friends and he’s forced to make crucial moral choices to save him and his family.
“Cleaner” is essentially an investigative noir genre film in the tradition of “Frantic” or "Double Indemnity". For the most part writer Alrich manages to keep the script plot-hole free. In addition Samuel L. Jackson (from Harlin’s “Deep Blue Sea”) provides the crucial ‘everyman’ anchor to draw in the audience. In the first half, a number of mysterious characters are set-up, and red herrings planted. By its very nature the third act has to rely on a twist or two to increase the stakes. “Cleaner” is not completely unpredictable, but, like most noir films, the fun is in the journey of discovery.
I respect filmmakers like Renny Harlin or, say, Russell Mulcahy whose new Resident Evil film "Extinction” was a pleasant surprise - reliable directors who have been around the block and acquired the skills and experience to make a solid film when presented with a solid script. Not every film should aspire to be a masterpiece. “Cleaner” never does. Sometimes reliability goes a long way. Enjoy.
PS Renny Harlin’s unpretentious audio commentary can be informative and inspirational to younger filmmakers. Check it out.