Sean Bean brings his brooding charisma to CleanSkin, a drama thriller about terrorist attacks in the UK. Here’s Ryan’s review…
CleanSkin is the name given to a type of terrorist who works alone, without connections to overseas organisations. By a vaguely similar token, CleanSkin the movie is an action thriller drama made by UK independent filmmakers without the big money financing of overseas producers. And regrettably, its low-budget, independent status is frequently apparent.
Sean Bean stars as Ewan, a government agent who specialises in breaking arms and murdering people at close quarters. The death of his wife during an unspecified terrorist attack has left him with an almighty chip on his shoulder, which is something high-ranking, chain-smoking official Charlotte (played by Charlotte Rampling) exploits perfectly when a suitcase full of Semtex is stolen by a group of British terrorists. Ewan is paired with young agent Mark (Tom Burke) and sent off on its trail – and with the substance already used to deadly effect in two bomb attacks in Britain’s capital, there’s little time for Ewan and Mark to track down the terrorists before they strike again.
CleanSkin is an odd movie, since it doesn’t slip comfortably into the genre of serious drama or slam-bang thriller. Sean Bean’s character is immediately marked out as an unsympathetic, morally ambiguous figure when he punches an unarmed prostitute in the spine. Ewan, we soon learn, is a dry-land Captain Ahab, a man intoxicated by his desire for revenge, and who will think nothing of doing serious damage to any person he suspects of terrorist sympathies.
Once we’re introduced to Ewan, the narrative switches to Ash (Abhin Galeya) a young Muslim who’s seduced into violent extremism by a smooth-talking, The Unforgiven-quoting preacher, Nabil (Peter Colycarpou). In a series of overlong scenes, we see Ewan’s gradual shift from mildly politicised law student to full-blown terrorist; his doomed relationship with a classmate (Tuppence Middleton) only serving to further his alienation from the decadence of life in the UK.
Written and directed by Hadi Hajaig, ClearSkin makes an attempt at providing a Heat-style look at two characters who are both extremists with divergent ideologies. There are some problems with this. First, neither character is particularly relatable (although overlong, Heat worked because it so successfully rounded out its protagonists). We know nothing about Bean’s character, other than that he once served overseas, and that he lost his wife in a terrorist attack. Admittedly, we do learn more about Ash, and Abhin Galeya is great in a role that is at least invested with more depth than Bean’s.
Tonally, CleanSkin’s serious, dramatic tone is repeatedly undermined by its action flick violence, where arms are snapped at close quarters, and skulls are shattered by perfect head-shots delivered to victims jumping off balconies. If it were merely a silly action film, ClearSkin would be perfectly serviceable, and could probably starred Jason Statham. Had it been a drama dealing with contemporary issues of terrorism and self-perpetuating violence, it may have worked, too. But taken together, these two clashing genres - one condemning the futility of violence, the other revelling in it as a cinematic spectacle - not only cancel one another out, but also create a quandary for the viewer.
On a happier note, Sean Bean adds a solidly embittered charisma as Ewan, Charlotte Rampling has a particularly lusty way of uttering the word 'Semtex' that sends a little frisson down my spine, and the script has its moments - one pre-bombing monologue even borders on the sublimely poetic.
The film’s rather poverty-stricken budget means that, sadly, the direction is rather less poetic - the same aerial shot of central London’s used at least five times, and most of its events appear to take place in hotel rooms around the Tottenham Court Road area of the capital.
CleanSkin is by no means a disastrous movie, though – merely an awkward one. Those looking for a fun action movie may be disappointed by its weighty, downbeat themes, while those looking for a truly intelligent look at how young men can become seduced into acts of terrorism would probably get more out of Chris Morris’ extraordinary Four Lions.