Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A quiet loner with a dark and violent history finds redemption by protecting an innocent child unfairly targeted by criminals. Oh, you have? What if I told you this anti-hero leads a quiet life that they narrate while driving around at night working a blue-collar job? You get it! Yeah, wait, I see your point- it is pretty similar to other stuff. In this one though, the main character has an ominous nickname from their mysterious past and at one point they reveal a massive back tattoo that really illustrates (get it?) how tough they are right before they start taking out the bad guys in cold-blooded fashion? Oh right! I forgot about those movies where they already did that. You see this concept’s different though because it’s going to feature an actor not normally known for action. It’ll really be a trip for the audience to see this award winner kick some ass on-screen. Right! Just like… oh, wait a minute. You have a point. Let me think.
I got nothing.
All silliness aside, genre movies are often formulaic. There is nothing wrong with that. Playing with familiar tropes to tell new stories is fundamental to the art form. It has to bring something fresh to the table though; a different perspective, interesting narrative choices, an unexpected setting, or some other unique aspect to make it noteworthy compared to what came before. If it can’t do that then the finished film has to at least have exceptional craft- a shining example of the form that can be pointed to as “how it should be done.”
What if you don’t have any of that though? What are you left with? These are the thoughts I’ve been mulling over since watching the new film from Academy Award-winning actor Adrien Brody, CLEAN.
The film, directed by Paul Solet (GRACE), stars Brody as “Clean” a recovering heroin addict who works a lot of different jobs to stay busy and out of trouble. Mostly though he works as a nighttime garbage man with a route through a part of town that has seen better days. He does what he can to help the area and the people who still live there though. One night, when he saves a young neighborhood girl from being assaulted, he inadvertently sets off a chain of events that draws the ire of a local drug kingpin, Glenn Fleshler (HBO’s BARRY), and before long Clean is forced back into the violent ways he tried to leave behind, after sobering up, in order to protect the people he cares about.
CLEAN is not a bad film from a craft perspective. It just does very little to set itself apart from the glut of films that it shares so much DNA with. Solet’s directing and Zoran Popovic’s (WAR INC.) cinematography nicely captures the wintery, urban landscape the film takes place in. And the fact that Brody himself composed the music for the film is an interesting novelty (but one that will be missed by almost anyone who sees the film). It’s also competently acted by all of the supporting cast. That effort though is in service of a story where every beat feels so familiar that it almost reaches the point of complete tedium.
Brody tries to make it work as best he can and is clearly committed to the role but it’s an awkward fit. His look suits Clean’s wounded nature well in the early parts of the film. However, when the story calls for him to transition into an unstoppable force of destructive vengeance his lanky physicality feels ill-fitting at best and at times renders moments that should be one of the film’s main selling points, the action beats, as wholly unconvincing.
The fact that CLEAN is also very dour doesn’t help much either. Its bleak tone drains moments that should be enjoyable to genre fans of any real energy. So, when familiar faces like Mykelti Williamson (CON AIR) and RZA (NOBODY) appear on screen it’s hard to muster any excitement. Even the film’s few action scenes, with their clear high levels of planning and execution, feel perfunctory and sedated. Everything is presented with all the enthusiasm of being forced to stop whatever you are doing to carry the trash out to the curb for pickup.
There have been many films that have tread the same well-worn ground as CLEAN and most have done so with much more success. So, for those who haven’t seen those other films, CLEAN will offer a subdued and somber tale of retribution and redemption. For everyone else though, they’ll wonder how a story that so prominently features waste could also feel so recycled. (2.5/5)
CLEAN will be in theaters and everywhere you rent and buy movies on January 28, 2022.