Die Hard 2/The Long Kiss Goodnight director Renny Harlin has long reigned as one of Hollywood's preeminent vulgarians. When super-producer Joel Silver wanted to transform Andrew "Dice" Clay from potty-mouthed laffsmith to big-budget action hero in The Adventures Of Ford Fairlane, Harlin was the slickster he tapped for the job. Similarly, when Paul Schrader's Exorcist: Dominion got art and ambition all over a lucrative film franchise built on a solid foundation of head-spinning, foul-mouthed demons, and projectile vomiting, Harlin was recruited to add the flash, trash, and gratuitous gore missing from Schrader's more sober, philosophical prequel. So it's a profound disappointment that Harlin's latest effort, the direct-to-DVD thriller Cleaner, lacks even the vulgar energy of Harlin's lesser films, in spite of a centrally present iconic badass legendary for yelling profanely about airborne reptiles.
Samuel L. Jackson leads a stellar, sleepwalking cast as an ex-cop and single father who ekes out a peculiar living cleaning up crime scenes. Jackson leads an orderly, fastidious existence with his precocious daughter, but his past comes back to haunt him when he becomes entangled in a web of deception involving his ex-partner (Ed Harris), widespread police corruption, and a mysterious woman (Eva Mendes) whose whistleblower husband has disappeared.
When Cleaner slipped into the Toronto Film Festival last year, festival-goers had to wonder if Harlin had made a great leap forward artistically and was ready to trade in slick pyrotechnics for arty drama. But don't let the film's highbrow cast, portentous tone, and leisurely pace fool you: Cleaner is just as empty and formulaic as his previous films, just much, much duller. The best the film can manage theme-wise is a groaningly obvious central metaphor about how Jackson's tortured conscience and tangled past can't be cleaned as easily as his crime scenes. In spite of heavyweight character actors like Jackson, Harris, Robert Forster, and Luis Guzmán, Cleaner feels unmistakably like the plodding, arbitrary introductory episode of a cop show that'd be lucky to make it past the pilot stage. Low-energy and grindingly mediocre, it adds a whole new dimension to Harlin's wildly uneven oeuvre: tedium.
Key features: Melodramatic deleted scenes and a reasonably engaging Harlin commentary that hits all the expected notes: gushing over actors, technical details, bits o' pretension, etc.