Cleanskin a Fine, Contemporary Thriller
By Kristin Battestella
It took me a few days to watch this 2012 British thriller thanks to its unfortunate arrival the same week as the terrorist events in Boston. However, the taught, gritty realism here makes for a solid modern espionage film full of spy intrigue suspense.
Secret Service agent Ewan (Sean Bean) survives a terrorist attack and the assassination of his charge, and his superior Charlotte (Charlotte Rampling) sends him on an unofficial covert mission to find the cell responsible, as Semtex explosives stolen during the attack must be retrieved. Ewan and his new partner Mark (Tom Burke) seek the perpetrator Ash (Abhin Galeya) – a young English born radical and student – hoping to catch him before more threats and attacks endanger London. Unfortunately, the deeper Ewan digs, the more he sinks into the corrupt secret agent game, and all the while, Ash gets closer to his next target.
Writer and director Hadi Hajaig (Puritan) opens Cleanskin with a weird sex scene and intercut news coverage. It’s a bit jarring compared to the often meaningless in your face action introductions we expect from heavy films today, but this smart approach builds intrigue and allows time for all the pieces to unfold. The violence, however, is intense once it happens – realistic, frightening, fast, and shocking. Scenes feel longer and deeper because of the tense attention to detail, and the complex technical talk, ordinance details, and political information demands undivided viewing attention. Not all the information is given to the audience at once – which can be a little confusing, since we are often too accustom to having easy answers in contemporary films – and some action scenes, tortures, and beat downs will be tough to watch, indeed. Cleanskin places its intelligence above generic action thrills a minute. However, the impression that is an all out action picture rather than a European political thriller probably hurt its draw stateside, and the flashbacks showing Ash’s history and the rise of his terror cell are mishandled. These critical character developments should have begun the film or been intercut with the opening scenes. It’s simply odd at best and bad filmmaking at worst to stop your forward moving action and tell the viewers what we should already know. It’s heavy, not often seen stuff, but this parallel backward perspective is not as interesting as the more familiar secret agent pursuit plots. Pacing drags in the middle as time is unevenly spent in one storyline or the other. There’s material enough for more – two separate films, perhaps – but the mismatched focus hampers both plotlines. Fortunately, the converging plots do come together for an intense, excellent finale.
Rather than some of these blink and you miss him crappy films, I’m so glad to see Game of Thrones star and BAFTA nominee Sean Bean as a man of action again with a complex, mature character. He looks good in contemporary leather and tight sweaters, and the short hair/scruffy beard combination fits the undercover desperation. Though lethal, Ewan makes mistakes. He has a past and doesn’t want things to get ugly, but he’ll do the heavy nonetheless. He doesn’t speak much and is tough to hear at times, but he is damn effective at scaring people into giving him what he wants. Ewan’s professional, but gritty, grey, and dirty in his pursuit of these terrorists. When does one cross the line between defending his country and becoming exactly like his prey? Bean is so seamless in the role that one can almost believe he’s this badass in real life when he’s not making movies! Some viewers might presume he is older and past his glorious Sharpe days, but the soft-spoken, unassuming, off the deep end secret agent seems like the part he was born to play. While I like Liam Neeson and his Taken glory and Zeus love in Clash of the Titans, I don’t understand why Bean is continually relegated to being that other Zeus for 5 minutes in dismissed films like Percy Jackson or the barely there King in Mirror Mirror. You don’t need to take those roles, Sean! Bean should definitely be doing this type of quiet, thoughtful, action thriller much more. Those who enjoy Cleanskin should also see the 1999 television production Extremely Dangerous, and his latest pilot Legends – also a spy caper – has been greenlit by TNT. Yes!
Charlotte Rampling (The Verdict, Stardust Memories, Swimming Pool) also brings some wonderfully strong femininity to Cleanskin as a sophisticated spy executive. Her usual excellence and grace is business suit imposing instead of Hollywood pretentious, and it’s clear that this handler has her own motivations to further stir the political plots. Tom Burke (Casanova) as Ewan’s rookie partner makes for an interesting companion to Bean as well. Though playful with an infant daughter, he has perfect, deadly aim. Cleanskin does have some brief TnA and sex scenes, but prostitute Shivani Ghai (Bride and Prejudice) is not exploited onscreen as is so often the case in action films. We don’t even see her in lingerie, much less naked or kinky; but for better or worse, the character is used smartly in the terror twists and plots. The ensemble does a fine job in making the audience question who everyone is, if we trust them, and who the villains really are. Abhin Galeya (Wimbledon) looks the part as main antagonist Ash, but Cleanskin is slow to show him as more than what we unfortunately now perceive as the standard Middle Eastern terrorist – again, his flashbacks should have come much sooner to elaborate and build sympathy. Are we really to believe Ash does all this over some bloke jealousy, the wrong English girl, and the charismatic words of a radical leader? This past tense development comes across as too easy, a typical, not heartfelt depiction, and at times, makes light of Muslim extremists and any brainwashing possibilities. Is Ash a deadly, created trigger or just an angry boy? Can one be both? Maybe, but Cleanskin’s presentation makes this point somewhat wishy-washy. For whom are we supposed to root anyway? Perhaps that is the questioning goal of the film.
Cleanskin looks the London quality, too. All the UK locations are grand, and the picture is bright and crisp. Us across the pond are able to feel the city realism and see everything – not like the usual dark color gradients and flashy, choppy editing. Instead of being over bearing and loud or creating the need for constant volume adjustment, there are just enough themes and motifs in the pleasing, but tense underscoring as well. It seems weird to say, but the violence here is also good – shockingly realistic designs, explosions, and action sequences rather than just gore for gore’s sake. Television footage and media coverage are spliced seamlessly into Cleanskin, creating a quite telling and timely aspect. It’s tough to watch the first time due to its subject matter, but Cleanskin really demands multiple viewings to completely notice all the onscreen media and news crawls – this picture has subtext, indeed. Some of the thoroughly British statements might be missed by American audiences, however, and subtitles are necessary for some soft dialogue. The blu-ray, of course, looks great, and there is a half hour behind the scenes feature with lots of Sean Bean and special effects secrets.
Those who don’t like action, gun violence, and terrorism intensity will find Cleanskin difficult, yes. However, don’t let any misrepresentation trying to make this more thought provoking political thriller fit into the American bang ‘em up formulaic action designs. I don’t understand why Cleanskin hasn’t garnered more attention, as it definitely fills the void left by the long running British series MI-5. Truly, Cleanskin replaces the weaker final seasons of the show, when the taught, gripping, and relevant drama ended as a knockoff of 24. I do fear this picture might be offensive to Muslims in some of its extreme depictions, yet I’m glad films are attempting to shed light on the often misconstrued face of terrorism. Bean fans will certainly love to see him in this meaty if somewhat uneven and slightly muddled caper. Despite the flashback flaws hampering its presentation and the message it is trying to send, Cleanskin is a gripping, must see contemporary thriller.