Made in: UK
Language: English
Director: Hadi Hajaig
Starring: Abhin Galeya, Sean Bean, Charlotte Rampling, Peter Polycarpou, Tuppence Middleton, Tom Burke, Chris Ryman, Silas Carson, James Fox
Year: 2012

Synopsis: A series of suicide bombings has London gripped with fear. And with the general elections in the UK looming, the massive loss of life has enormous political implications as well.

Scant forensic evidence doesn’t give UK’s domestic security services much to go on, but they strongly suspect a “homegrown” Islamic extremist terrorist cell. That is, the perpetrators are UK citizens (known as “Cleanskins”) who have been radicalized to carry out the heinous acts.

Tasked with finding the cell is Charlotte (Charlotte Rampling), a security service case officer. She tasks an agent named Ewan (Sean Bean), to do whatever it takes to take down the bad guys. A grizzled veteran of the war in Afghanistan, Ewan is haunted by the loss of his wife in a terrorist bombing, as well as the deaths of fellow soldiers. He is a patriot, committed to hunting down terrorists wherever they may be.

But because Ewan’s methods might have to be extreme and very illegal, he is to use old fashioned trade craft and detective work, instead of more modern techniques involving computers and gadgets. His mission is ultra top secret, and any missteps will have serious professional and political consequences.

The story also follows a young an named Ashram (aka Ash, played by Abhin Galeya), a law school student. Although he is of Arab descent, Ash was born and raised in the UK. He’s intelligent and passionate, but is facing emotional difficulties because of an uneasy relationship with his girlfriend, Kate (Tuppence Middleton). He’s also experiencing an identity crisis, feeling torn between the culture of his heritage and that of his home country.

This leads to a fateful encounter with Nabil (Peter Polycarpou), a charismatic muslim cleric. Nabil is sympathetic to Ash, and introduces him to a community of other young Arab Brits. Through a number of community meetings, Nabil spreads a powerful message about the importance of embracing their Muslim identities.

But bit by bit, he goes further and teaches that the Western world is largely responsible for the suffering of fellow Muslims in the middle east. Through a gradual process of indoctrination and undue influence, Nabil begins justifying acts of violence to achieve their goals. Eventually, he succeeds in radicalizing Ash and his friends.

While on the path of becoming a homegrown terrorist, Ash still faces struggles between his true self and his radicalized identity. But being entrusted by Nabil to carry out a massive bombing at a posh London hotel, he is swept too far into his new life to turn back.

Hot on Ash’s trail is the relentless Ewan. In the midst of his assignment, he realizes that his seemingly straightforward mission likely makes him a pawn in a much larger, dirty political game.

The Good: Cleanskin takes a different approach to the “catch the terrorist” storyline. Instead of a thriller akin to that of 24 or another shoot ‘em up, this film spends a lot of time developing its antagonist.

We get a close, genuine look at the radicalization process, which is explored with sophistication and depth. Instead of two-dimensional “Death to the West” bomb-toting caricatures from Hollywood, the terrorists in Cleanskin are intelligent, educated young men who are cleverly manipulated by Nabil over an extended period of time. The undue influence appeals to their emotions and youthful idealism, presenting itself under the guise of “helping their Muslim brothers.”

Although slower in pacing than other films of the same genre, Cleanskin is still intense and unflinching. From a narrative point of view, it is engrossing and unpredictable. The terrorist Ash is humanized, which makes the issue of Islamic extremism more frightening and sobering.

The Bad: With so much of the story being devoted to Ash, Sean Bean’s character doesn’t get adequate screen time. He’s a superb actor, and realistically portrays the look of a grimly determined man who’s experienced too much tragedy. But his past is only mentioned through dialogue, and not enough is done, action-wise, to help the audience connect to him more emotionally.

But my biggest complaint is that we don’t see much of Ewan doing any actual investigating. He is ordered by Charlotte Rampling’s character to use only old fashioned trade craft and detective work in his hunt. With few clues and a short time frame before the next terror bombing, this was the perfect set-up for a smart, sophisticated thriller.

But unfortunately, most of Ewan’s “investigating” simply involved getting tipped off by other agents as to the exact whereabouts of would-be terrorist cell members.

Who would like this film: Cleanskin is for fans of smart action thrillers and spy movies. It’s very well acted, has a sense of depth and intelligence, and is genuinely intense. It shows a realistic portrayal of the cult-like recruiting techniques used by Al Qaida-like terror groups (isolation, phobia indoctrination, “us vs them” thinking, emotional manipulation, etc), and offers a clear picture as to how otherwise intelligent people get turned into suicide bombers.

But the story doesn’t quite wrap up in a satisfying way, and resorts to a disappointing and by-the-book “government conspiracy” twist. And because Sean Bean and Charlotte Rampling don’t have fully developed characters, there’s also a lack of emotional punch at the end.

It’s a movie with definite strengths, but enough flaws to keep it from being great.

2 and 1/2 out of 4 stars

Review written by: Joe Yang

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