Wants to be Michael Mann’s Heat when it should be yoking Cronenberg’s The Fly.
With its Apprentice-esque panoramas of London, this low-budget action thriller joins indie films like Rachid Bouchareb’s London River, Chris Morris’ Four Lions and Robb Leech’s My Brother the Islamist in bringing the global War on Terror to the UK capital.
Ash (Abhin Galeya) is the eponymous ‘Cleanskin’, a homegrown extremist who has evaded the attentions of the security services while plotting to communicate to the apathetic masses "in the only language [they] understand."
On other side of the divide is Ewan (Sean Bean), a Secret Agent told to go "off reservation" by his Whitehall superior (Charlotte Rampling) and restlessly stalk this untold threat with gun, knife and boundless demons of his own.
As Ewan cuts loose across London, we assume that this menacing loner with a soldiering past will become our protector hero. But it is the terrorist, Ash, who begins to fill the screen. Where did such anger come from, we are asked as we search the crevices of his stately face? Why has he chosen this path to oblivion?
In clumsy flashbacks, we learn that Ash’s teething period as an enemy of the people began at University. Falling under the guidance of a radical cleric, he begins to wean himself from the disappointments and pleasures of everyday life.
He abandons his studies and dismissively breaks up with his girlfriend, Kate (Tuppence Middleton), a binge-drinking tearaway who lacks the maturity to commit to their relationship. He goes on to pursue something he believes to be much higher, much more pure: revenge for his persecuted Muslim brothers.
Then, as his radicalisation is almost complete, Ash meets Kate again – a little weathered now by the waning of that destructive joie de vivre, but all the more fragile, all the more beautiful.
The film defines itself in these scenes. Ash and Kate staring at each other, acknowledging it "slipped away". Having sex again. An old tune – more a sweet memory – playing on a pub jukebox and piercing through times past. Is this half-prospect of rediscovered love enough to make Ash reconsider his course? The clue is in the title of that tune: it’s Blur’s 'Out of Time'.
Director Hadi Hajaig should have made this relationship the very core of the film, but, alas, Cleanskin wastes the power that it built in those brief scenes prior to sagging and buckling under the tried and tested conventions of genre thriller, with its conspiracy theories and MacGuffins.
If his earlier film, Puritan, is anything to go by, Hajaig seems prepossessed by the trappings of film noir. Bean is the Big Star, and he puts in a performance that recalls his finer moments as Richard Sharpe. But any parallel the film attempts to draw between these antithetical anti-heroes feels thin and tenuous.
With a better script editor, this could have been a character-piece comparable, maybe, to Showtime’s Homeland.
Instead we are left with a generic action flick that seems desperately at odds with itself.
A decent calling card, but next time round Hajaig must recognise a good thing, and then run with it.