Although it looks at first like a generic macho action pic with lots of gory brainsplatter effects, there's a more finely pored, thoughtful piece of work lurking beneath the gritty surface of Brit pic "Cleanskin," writer-helmer Hadi Hajaig's sophomore effort.
Although it looks at first like a generic macho action pic with lots of gory brainsplatter effects, there’s a more finely pored, thoughtful piece of work lurking beneath the gritty surface of Brit pic “Cleanskin,” writer-helmer Hadi Hajaig’s sophomore effort. However, the script relies too much on painfully clunky if necessary flashbacks to explain how its British-born Muslim protagonist turned into a terrorist, and the material might have worked much better as multipart TV drama. Feature form makes this a more vulgar, rough-hewn creature that will play largely to a male demographic and clean up well on ancillary.
While working undercover as a bodyguard to arms dealer Harry (Sam Douglas), former-soldier-turned-secret-service-agent Ewan (Sean Bean, well loved locally for his swashbuckling antics on TV’s “Sharpe” franchise) survives a bloody shootout with balaclava-clad Ash (Abhin Galeya), a member of an Islamic terrorist cell who steals Harry’s briefcase full of Semtex explosives and escapes with a minor injury. Ewan’s spymasters, Charlotte McQueen (Charlotte Rampling) and her boss, Scott Catesby (James Fox), inform Ewan that he must hunt down the cell members and retrieve the briefcase.
Ewan is assigned a young second-in-command, Mark (Tom Burke), a squeaky-clean Christian and new father, and the two begin tracking down Ash and his comrades. They begin garnering intelligence by roughing up prostitute Rena (Shivani Ghai), in one of the pic’s more objectionable scenes.
As Ewan and Mark circle in on Ash, the terrorist prepares a bomb with the stolen Semtex that will eventually kill scores of people. A chance encounter with his ex-g.f., Kate (Tuppence Middleton), prompts a series of flashbacks to Ash’s college days, when he was turned by Islamic extremist Nabil (Peter Polycarpou, marvelously charismatic), who spotted Ash’s latent anger and disaffection with white, covertly racist mainstream Britain. Ash’s politicization cost him his relationship with Kate, a break-up that neither of them quite got over, and a rekindling of their relationship in the present tempts him to imagine a different, less violent way of life.
Numerous setpieces are devised to show off Galeya’s and especially Bean’s action moves, most of them unfurling in a flurry of tight, smeary closeups jaggedly edited together. A greater sense of spatial clarity is marshaled in the initial shootout, a scene shot in what’s supposed to be a hotel, but which any Londoner will recognize as Senate House, the city’s grandest academic library. Oddly, the location is only the first of several scholastic-themed spaces here. For a film that tries to score so many points with its target audience, using bravura special makeup effects to show heads being blown apart (at one point in midair), education, that other way of opening up the mind, also looms large here, with another library scene and a few more set in classrooms, not least the makeshift one where Nabil instills his philosophy in his converts.
Script is indeed vastly more dialogue-heavy than one would expect from such fare, and Hajaig, a British-born director of Lebanese extraction, clearly wants to delve into what makes a “cleanskin,” someone with no criminal record or obvious links to terrorism, turn toward extremism. The ambition is laudable even if the execution isn’t as smooth or detailed as it might have been.
Ewan’s plotline jars more with cliches, and a last-act twist may rep a nasty turn too far for some auds, but Bean is as watchable as ever, as is the consistently impressive Galeya. The femme characters have less to chew on, but Middleton holds her own in a somewhat underwritten role.