Cleanskin Review: Brutal, Sombre Thriller That Doesn't Quite Add Up To The Sum Of Its Parts

Buried within the somewhat messy cut we're presented with is a more cohesive, and ultimately clearer film waiting to escape.

Sean Bean and Charlotte Rampling in Cleanskin

rating: 2.5

It's all in the edit they say, and having taken on the roles of writer, director, and producer, perhaps Hadi Hajaig, the man behind terrorism thriller Cleanskin, should have handed the reins of editor to someone else. Because buried within the somewhat messy cut we're presented with is a more cohesive, and ultimately clearer film waiting to escape. There are numerous illogical leaps and sequential mis-steps that create a mood of unreality at the very points that the story is trying to impress us with it's hard-edged grit, and the inconsistent pacing from gratifyingly effective action to flashbacks that would try the patience of Basil Exposition leave you ultimately either questioning the story-tellers nous, or even more damning, wondering when the story's going to end. Hadi Hajaig's professed intention was to make a commercial action thriller, a piece of populist genre entertainment, but to colour it with some unconventional focus on the supposed bad guy, to give a more balanced outlook to the protagonist/antagonist dynamic. That's all when and good, and it's difficult to argue that he doesn't succeed, but the problem is that it's done in a disconcertingly unimaginative manner, each part drawn out in lengthy sequences that at once make you more informed, and partially removed, at the same time. Cleanskin starring Sean Bean The film begins with Ash (Abhin Galeya), the bad guy in question, about to do something supposedly criminal as we see him enter a swanky hotel, proceeding through an upstairs lobby wearing a balaclava and holding a gun. That the people in the immediate vicinity don't raise the alarm as he continues his merry way towards his target in the lobby below is just one of the film's slightly bizarre leaps of logic. His target meanwhile is being guarded by the taciturn and gruff-looking Ewan (Sean Bean), a security service agent working undercover, who unfortunately fails to prevent his client being mowed down in an otherwise nicely staged shoot-out, and a briefcase full of semtex being spirited away. One semtex suicide bombing in central London later and Ewan is tasked by his superiors, a brief James Fox and a typically shadowy Charlotte Rampling, to track down this homegrown terrorist cell and to terminate it with extreme prejudice. No questions asked. And no backup either, apart from his new partner, a welcoming left-field but underused Tom Burke. Ash, we learn, is the eponymous Cleanskin, a terrorist without criminal background and an absolute blank slate as far as the security services are concerned. Of course being a film more inclined to the dramatic pyrotechnics of 24 than the slow burn chills of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, it doesn't take Ewan long to get on Ash's trail, primarily through the amateurish set-up of our terrorist's opening target. And it's at this point that we really see how far Ewan is prepared to go to get his man as he takes a shockingly brutal fist to the prostitute involved. She naturally lets slip another giant-sized piece of information, namely the house where she's been to service Ash's plainly less astute partner in crime. Cleanskin starring Sean Bean There's a lazy continuity error (editors take note) during the house attack as silencers appear, disappear, then appear again in rapid succession, but again Hajaig does show he has an eye for kinetic action with a pleasingly vicious bit of close-quarter gun and knife play in the attic. Although in a later flashback scene where horror is the intent, both for us and for the activist in training, Ash, the end result in more repulsive than pulse-quickening. It's a good example of the imbalance between the underlying action thriller and the search for greater depth in the why's and wherefores of modern-day terrorists. In its attempt to paint a balanced picture the sequences in which we see Ash in student days seduced by the charismatic but patently Machiavellian Islamic cleric, Nabil (Peter Polycarpou), are shown in such lengthy, linear blocks, any mystery or intrigue is drained away. See, Ash is human, he has a girlfriend, he has the normal ideological conflicts of any young Muslim in a booze-filled student world (however his classroom belief that violence is the real generator of change before he even sets eyes on Nabil might give someone cause for alarm). Then in a film that's seemingly attempting to avoid stereotypes, the overseas 'contact' who's drafted into organise Ash's first 'hit', appears in a scene that could scarcely make him come across as more shifty. Abhin Galeya does well out of a tricky role as Ash. You can't exactly call his character sympathetic, but you can recognise that he's the victim of manipulation almost as much as agent Ewan. With the focus on Ash's turning and descent into mass murder Sean Bean as the agent let loose, and ultimately traded in, becomes a less focused presence. He's damaged, mean and determined but ultimately a little two dimensional. Ironically it's only at the end when Ewan just about comes out on top, that you find yourself wanting to watch more, a literal storm breaking around him. It's bleak, pleasingly twisted, and open-ended. It would seem unlikely that we'll get to follow him any further into the dark though. Cleanskin quad poster Cleanskin is out in UK cinemas now. Check out our recent interviews with the cast & crew HERE.

Film writer, drinker of Guinness. Part-time astronaut. Man who thinks there are only two real Indiana Jones movies, writing loglines should be an Olympic event, and that science fiction, comic book movies, 007, and Hal Hartley's Simple Men are the cures for most evils. Currently scripting.