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Friday, Jan. 30, 2009
This Twinkie don't taste too good
By KAORI SHOJI
The phrase "somebody's gotta do it" applies with hammering aptness to what Tom (Samuel L. Jackson) does for a living in "Cleaner." His company, Steri-Clean, clears up after murder and death sites where, after the body has been taken away, various stains, marks and odors stubbornly remain. When Steri-Clean gets a call (mostly from the local precinct) Tom gets going, geared head-to-toe in the same attire that scientists wear when investigating nuclear-plant disasters. Tom's good at it and dedicated too — his homemade toxin-eradicating detergent works wonders. As he glibly informs his old friends at a high-school reunion: "My specialty is adding a dash of Listerine."
Tom didn't start out as a cleaner; he used to be a cop in his hometown of Trenton, New Jersey. But some unsavory dealings with the crooked chief of police led him to resign and start over. Why he chose this particular business out of everything else is never explained. Which is a shame, because the motives for this rather drastic shift in career track (atonement? posttraumatic reaction?) seem much more interesting than the actual story, which is pretty much standard copland fare of intrigue, scandal and coverups. Also, does Tom, like, get dates? In much detective fiction, coroners and homicide detectives and the occasional forensic analyst — despite their daily dealings with death — get hit on by women all the time. But a veritable "just a janitor," as Tom is referred to by an ex-colleague, is apparently another story. Fastidious, diligent and terribly low-key when he's not working, Tom comes home to his 14-year-old daughter, Rose (Keke Palmer), chats a bit and then goes immediately to bed. Zzzz.
"Cleaner" is directed by Renny Harlin, who once brought us such hugely entertaining, no-brainer action pics like "Die Hard 2" and "Cliffhanger." Harlin's main strength was a glorious willingness to keep churning out the cinematic equivalents of Twinkies and Cheez Wiz; the highly respected auteur of junk. "Cleaner" however, shows Harlin in highbrow mode and it doesn't suit him very well. Instead of spurting blood, there are coagulated blood pools on deep pile carpeting. Instead of actual gunshot exchanges there are precise little holes on otherwise immaculate wallpaper. And for all the talk of death and crime, there's not one corpse to liven up the proceedings, just a lot of goo and the aftermath of murder, which is, basically, a lot of goo. (It must be dealt with soon before the furniture is ruined permanently!)
Tom goes about his work with amazing meticulousness, mopping and sponging and sterilizing with obsessive regard for cleanliness and almost no regard for human feeling.
"I like to think of it as clearing away the anger and sadness," says Tom. And yet, when he stumbles upon a woman grieving for the body that's just been taken away, all he does is close the door so she can't see him spray-cleaning. There's something creepy, but philosophical, in Tom's single-mindedness, but the story never expands on that side of him and he remains depthless and only slightly interesting. No wonder Rose prefers watching old Hollywood movies on late-night TV to meaningful conversations with dad. Not that he ever attempts to communicate with her on that level.
Some scenes still bear the Harlin stamp of good old entertainment — Ed Harris as Eddie, Tom's ex-partner from his police days, and Eva Mendes as the busty, mysterious femme fatale Ann Norcutt, provide some intensity and hot-blooded emotional messiness. But for the most part, the story is mainly preoccupied with classification and tidiness. Everything about Tom — his apartment, his office, his shirts — are depressingly clean. And when the tragedy threatens to get too personal, Tom combats the situation with a cartload of various detergents. Definitely, this guy does not date.