Scrub away a needlessly fussy visual style, trendy narrative tweaks and a climax both morally repugnant and logically absurd, and there’s a tough little noir about buried transgressions coming out of the past in Renny Harlin’s lackluster thriller “Cleaner.” Too mainstream to attract genre interest, and too tangled in its character motivations to sit well with the multiplex crowd, this is a minor stain that should fade quickly and leave only faint traces in ancillary.
Former Trenton cop Tom Cutler (Samuel L. Jackson) now runs his own tidy little business, Steri-Clean, which specializes in “biomedical and biohazard abatement services.” That is, whenever someone dies, Tom’s hired to clean up the mess after the body’s been taken away. When he’s not mopping up bodily fluids, Tom’s got his hands full raising young teenage daughter Rose (Keke Palmer) in the wake of his wife’s murder.
Called to a crime scene in an upscale neighborhood, Tom does a typically efficient job of eradicating all traces of what looks to be a messy shooting. When he forgets to leave the key and returns to drop it off, he’s startled to learn the lady of the house, Ann Norcut (Eva Mendes), has no idea what he’s talking about. But her husband’s gone missing …
Thus begins a fitfully absorbing mystery that grows to involve Tom’s ex-partner Eddie Lorenzo (Ed Harris), hostile force detective Jim Vargas (Luis Guzman) and shadowy figures within the city government who remember a time when Tom wasn’t as honest or diligent as he is now.
Pic’s father-daughter dynamic feels inflated, as does a brief religious thread. Ill-conceived climax swiftly undoes whatever genre traction had been gained to that point. Nevertheless, writer Matthew Aldrich displays a clear affinity for vintage Hollywood pictures, as evidenced by the noirish linkages of past sins and the screwball comedies Rose likes to watch on latenight TV.
Vet action helmer Harlin has made some terrifically brawny action pictures, including “Die Hard 2: Die Harder,” “Cliffhanger” and “Deep Blue Sea.” He’s also been watching too much television, as “Cleaner” suffers from a distracting case of visual jitters and takes a “CSI” approach to fetishizing the messy nature of the human body.
Jackson’s in a lower gear than usual, Harris brings his usual intensity to a role both complex and obvious, and Guzman gives the furtive turf wars in the cop sequences a welcome verisimilitude. Mendes makes a fine femme fatale, while Robert Forster is underutilized as a genial coroner.
Production values are high, led by Scott Kevan’s clean widescreen lensing. As there’s precious little sense of place throughout, Shreveport, La., fills in adequately for New Jersey.