There can be a certain stigma attached to films that by and large skip any sort of significant theatrical release, and instead go directly to video. This stigma is compounded when the film has a cast of well-known actors, and is directed by someone with a proven track record. When you stumble across these films at the video store, and look at the box, and see everyone involved in the production, it’s not all that unfair to ask, “What’s wrong with this movie that I’ve never heard of it?” And that’s pretty much the case with Cleaner, one of those movies that seems like something you should have heard of, but haven’t, making the whole thing all the more suspect.
Samuel L. Jackson stars as Tom Cutler (not Carver, as it says on the DVD box and on IMBD), a former cop who now owns and operates SteriClean, a company that specializes in cleaning up crime scenes. As the film opens with a surprising comedic touch that is unfortunately not maintained throughout, Tom explains what he does to his former classmates at his high school reunion. Tom presents himself as a business man providing a necessary service during people’s time of extreme emotional weakness. But under his cool façade of meticulous, obsessive compulsive behavior, is a man as emotionally damaged as the clients he serves. Living with his teenage daughter, Tom struggles to keep it together after the brutal murder of his wife, which drove him off the force, and in to business for himself. But there were other factors that led him to leave the job, including some questionable jobs he did for the corrupt chief of police, who is currently under a criminal investigation that threatens much of the force.
When Tom is called in to clean up a murder scene, it seems like a routine job. But when he realizes he has held on to the key to the house, and returns the next day, he makes a startling discovery. The woman of the house, Ann Norcut (Eve Mendes), has no knowledge of Tom ever being contracted to clean up her house after a murder. To make matter worse, there is no official police record of crime committed at the house, and Ann’s husband has gone missing. All of these points to someone having set Tom up to clean the crime scene before it was actually discovered. And when Tom realizes that Ann’s husband was a key witness in the trial against the chief of police, it becomes clear that he is a pawn in a murder that is being covered up by someone within the force. With his well-structured world crumbling around him, the former cop finds himself once again trying to solve a mystery, which is complicated by the fact that the murder victim had proof of Tom’s past corruption on the force, leaving the cleaner with ample motive to be involved in the killing himself.
Cleaner has a solid premise and a for-the-most-part solid cast. Jackson gives a great performance that carries the film, and he has great chemistry with Keke Palmer, who co-stars as his daughter, Rose, and Ed Harris, who co-stars as his ex-partner and Rose’s godfather. Luis Guzman gives one of his better performances in a supporting role as a detective of questionable integrity snooping around Tom’s business. And even Eva Mendes, an actress of such questionable talent she could motivate porn actress to take a shot at going legit, isn’t completely terrible. But the best performance, and easily the most interesting character in the film, is Miguel (Jose Pablo Cantillo), who has a small supporting role as one of Tom’s employees.
But despite everything that works with Cleaner, there is still something missing. It has moments of goodness that reach for greatness, and as a whole, it is effectively entertaining more than it is ineffectively crappy. But the pieces never quite come together the way they should. The story, which is as character driven as it is plot driven, never quite manages to develop the supporting characters enough to really lead up to the third act, when all the pieces fall into place. Instead, there is just enough revealed about everyone that when the truth is revealed, the audience is able to nod their heads and say, “Oh yeah, that makes sense.” The big problem, or course, is that there’s a better-than-not chance you’ll figure out a good deal of what is going on long before it is revealed. And this is not because the film tips its hand too soon, so much as it because there is a pattern to solving mysteries of this nature, and once you’ve seen enough films like this, you inevitably know how it is going to end.
Ultimately, Cleaner is a film that wants to be clever and challenge the audience, but not challenge them too much. It wants its audience to think, just not too hard. And the end result is a film that ultimately plays it safe by sticking to the conventional rules that apply to these sorts of stories. The film would have been infinitely more compelling had it included more of the character of Miguel, and delved deeper into the moral ambiguity of Tom Cutler. And while the film is clearly inspired by some of the great paranoid thrillers of the 1970s, which often offered less-than-tidy conclusions, Cleaner can’t resist the urge to tie things up in a nice neat package, even though the film would have been better served by a different ending.
Directed by Renny Harlin, whose best films include Die Hard 2 and The Long Kiss Goodnight, Cleaner has a distinct visual style that serves the film, making it a movie that is always good looking. But while Cleaner succeeds visually, it is lacking in the emotional density needed to make it the best film it can be. The end result is a movie that you see on the shelf at the video store, wonder how come with the impressive cast you’ve never heard of it, and then watch it and realize that it is missing an indefinable spark of life. And that’s not to say the film is bad, or not worth watching. It just means that Cleaner is a good film, just not a great film.