“Fight fire with fire”
Director: Hadi Hajaig
Cast: Sean Bean, Charlotte Rampling, Abhin Galeya
Synopsis: A British secret service agent is faced with the task of pursuing and eliminating a British-born suicide bomber and his terrorist cell.
Sean Bean (Shopping, Ca$h) plays Ewan, a British Secret Service agent, in Hadi Hajaig’s tense and brutal thriller. He’s something of a loner, a psychologically scarred survivor of a war on terror which claimed his wife as collateral damage some years ago, and the kind of agent who follows orders unquestioningly, believing that his superiors act always with the best interests of the country and its people at heart. He’s probably the only bloke in the country who does by now, but we’ll let that one go, shall we? After all, Hajaig, who also wrote the screenplay, has crafted an unusually intelligent, well-balanced study of both an agent on the frontline and the skilled seduction of Asian youth Ash (Abhin Galeya) into the cause of Islamist radicalism, and interspersed it with a number of exciting, ultra-violent action scenes.
Ewan is given the task by his boss, Charlotte (Charlotte Rampling — I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead), of tracking down those behind a suicide bombing in a packed London restaurant after it’s discovered that the semtex used in the explosion was stolen from the government. It just so happens that Ewan was minding the shady arms dealer (Sam Douglas — Snatch) from whom the semtex was stolen, and he recalls that the hooker (Shivani Gai) with whom the now-deceased man was cavorting was playing with the gun which was mysteriously empty of bullets when he attempted to use it to save his life. With the aid of fellow agent Mark (Tom Burke — I Want Candy), it doesn’t take Ewan long to track down the prostitute and find out who paid her to tamper with the dead man’s firearms.
The two men for whom Ewan is hunting are Paul (Tariq Jordan) and Ash, who are now seasoned professionals, but a couple of extended flashbacks take us back seven years to show just how the vague dissatisfaction of Ash, an ordinary young British man studying to be a lawyer, is patiently transformed into Islamic extremism by the teachings of wily cleric Nabil (Peter Polycarpou) and results in him becoming involved in a wave of heightened terrorist activity in the run-up to a General Election. Although it doesn’t take Ewan too long to identify Paul and Ash as the men he’s searching for, locating them before they strike again proves to be a lot more difficult…
The promo material would have you believing Cleanskin is a straightforward action thriller, but Hajaig’s film delivers much more than that as it draws on real events since the 7/7 bombings (the mistaken killing of innocent Jean Charles De Menezes, the apparent suicide of Dr. David Kelly, the foiled plot to behead a Muslim soldier, etc) to build up a picture of just what drives Ash and Ewan. Both men, it eventually becomes apparent, are deliberately misled and exploited by their masters, whose agenda is always murky at best. It’s unusual to find such a balanced exploration of both sides of the terrorist equation in a movie and, in fact, Hajaig devotes more attention to Ash than Ewan, meaning that the latter comes across as something of a stereotype. His taciturn and brooding nature is right up Sean Bean’s street, but it prevents the audience from getting under his skin in the same way that the film allows us to get to know Ash. Having said that, Ash’s evident intelligence means that the film’s explanation of how he became indoctrinated into a life of terrorism fails to convince.
The violence in Cleanskin is sometimes shocking in its unflinching savagery. Near point-blank gunfire explodes victim’s heads on at least two occasions — one while the victim is in mid-flight from a building — and Hajaig doesn’t shy away from showing violence to women, which some might find off-putting, although quite why a man receiving a bullet to the head should be considered more acceptable than a woman being punched in the back is something of a mystery to me. Both are inexcusable acts of violence, and the second probably occurs a lot more often in real life than the first, which should therefore make seeing a man being shot in the head more disturbing than seeing a woman assaulted. It’s only because we regularly see extreme violence against men on the screen that it has become less shocking to us. Anyway, that particularly scene might make it even more difficult for some viewers to root for our hero who, perhaps unexpectedly, is the one to deliver the offending blow. While all this violence is surprisingly graphic, however, given its context it never really feels gratuitous, even though it does sometimes sit uncomfortably with the film’s frequent quieter moments as it focuses on Ash’s back story.
Overall, Cleanskin is an ambitious, solidly-crafted thriller that provides a chillingly believable scenario. The concluding twist is perhaps unnecessary, although it’s clearly there to emphasise the similarities between the situation in which Ewan and Ash find themselves — and one particular prop is given such prominence in an early scene that any seasoned film watcher will correctly expect it to make a crucial appearance later in the film and its owner to be unmasked as an undercover villain.