Cleanskin is an ambitious movie. Not many action films would take the trouble to provide the terrorists with as much character and backstory as the gun-toting hero. The fact that Cleanskin does, is in itself worthy of praise. But even better, this film is not only ambitious: it is also successful. Cleanskin is certainly not flawless but it is a tense, gripping and surprisingly poignant piece of work.
The title ‘Cleanskin’ refers to the status of the film’s homegrown terrorist villain Ash (Abhin Galeya), a cleanskin being a terrorist previously unknown to a nation’s security forces. Ash, a young Muslim radicalised by the charismatic Nabil (Peter Polycarpou) has stolen a briefcase of semtex, and plans to carry out a series of bombings. Opposing him is Ewan (Sean Bean, and absolutely not Boromir) an agent authorised to do anything he likes in shutting the bomb plot down. The film itself divides its time between this present day action, and a series of flashbacks that tell the story of Ash’s radicalisation.
Now, the fairly impressive thing about this film is that one man, Hadi Hajaig, wrote, directed and edited the whole thing, while simultaneously managing to fund it independently of the studios. That is a ton of work for one man to do. Therefore I can’t honestly fault him if he let some responsibilities slide a little.
I’ll put it bluntly: this film lacks polish. However I must emphasise this is not the same as calling it bad. If anything that’s the problem. The dialogue being mostly good, made the lines that sound like nothing anyone would ever actually say, clunk like wooden shoes. The wonderfully brutal flow of most of the action sequences, made one’s excessive use of shakycam thoroughly irritating. And then there’s the plotting. Though towards the middle and end, the story unravels smooth as silk, Ash’s radicalisation kicks off in a sequence riddled with hamfisted cliché.
But despite the visibility of the flaws, there is still so much to love about Cleanskin. The action is a brutal triumph, full of fountains of blood, messy head shots and wince-worthy stabbings. It’s also really exciting, one chase sequence set in the maze of a council estate being particularly memorable. Enhancing this is Simon Lambros’ score which, though far from original in style, is nonetheless highly effective in racking up the tension.
The acting is also top notch. Sean Bean is, as always, fantastic; morose and grizzled, an emotionally wounded veteran of Afghanistan, determined to have peace in Britain at least. But oddly enough, despite Bean’s (presumably marketing-inspired) top billing, this film is much more Galeya’s show.
This is no bad thing though. Intense and troubled, Galeya embodies excellently the two sides of his character: the capable, committed killer on the surface, and the angry, but confused, young man on the inside. As for the supporting cast, two names very much deserve a mention. Tuppence Middleton (god bless her parents), delivers a movingly fragile performance as Kate, Ash’s love interest. And then there’s Silas Carson as Amin, a figure of quite literally towering menace, whose mockery, as much as Nabil’s speeches, helps to push Ash over the edge.
But really the most important thing about Cleanskin is the care it takes with its subject. This is a film without any real aims above being an entertaining action thriller: it is not trying to be a study of radicalisation or the ethical dilemmas of intelligence work. And yet, despite this, it still takes the care to present a story of two sides. Ash may still be a villain, but he is a villain we are encouraged to understand, rather than blindly despise. In short, I really recommend Cleanskin. It is aware of its artistic responsibilities to a degree few movies are, and yet makes sure that being responsible, doesn’t stop it being bloody good fun.