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“Clean” accomplishes more when it tries to do less: when it follows Adrien Brody’s tormented character around as he quietly goes about the daily business of atoning for his sins. Brody conveys so much emotion and regret simply through his screen presence, though his haunted eyes and steady gait. But then the narration kicks in, needlessly explaining what he’s thinking all the time.
This small film was clearly a labor of love for the Oscar winner, who also serves as producer, co-writer, and composer. Why he would lend his considerable clout to this clichéd story told in overwrought fashion remains a mystery, but his ability is never in doubt. Reteaming with director and co-writer Paul Solet (“Bullet Head”), Brody stars as the ironically named Clean. He’s a garbage collector who spends his nights picking up trash from the industrial, snowy streets of Utica, New York, and laying down his worldview in repetitive, heavy-handed tones.
“I’m still lookin’ for answers,” he explains in a raspy, opening voiceover. “I just don’t know the questions anymore.” He also complains about the “endless onslaught of ugliness” he sees all around him, which is more than a little reminiscent of Travis Bickle’s screeds against the decay of society. “No matter how hard I try, I can’t wash away the past,” he says eventually, just in case we weren’t clear as to the story “Clean” aims to tell.
But watching him try to do just that is far more compelling than hearing him talk about it. Clean is good with his hands, and we see him go through the methodical process of gathering salvageable items, fixing them in his spartan apartment, and selling them to the local pawn shop, where RZA brings a welcome feeling of warmth amid the bleakness as its proprietor. Mykelti Williamson also has a few nice moments as a barber who serves as Clean’s sponsor. (His recovery from drug addiction gives the film’s title yet another meaning.) Clean seems to know everyone in the neighborhood and secretly does good deeds for them, like painting over graffiti or fixing the exterior of a dilapidated house.
There’s a much more intriguing story here in the simple series of kindnesses that pave the road toward his salvation, but Solet and Brody are more inclined toward the exploitative shock of gory, B-movie thrills. Among the people he looks out for is Dianda (Chandler DuPont), a sweet teenager living with her grandmother. She clearly reminds him of the young daughter he lost, a tragedy “Clean” alludes to in brisk, overly stylized flashbacks. (We finally learn what happened toward her at the end, but it seems so ridiculously impossible, it drains the event of its intended dramatic punch.) When he savagely protects Dianda from being gang raped by a group of local toughs, one of the kids he beats up with his trusty wrench happens to be the son of the city’s drug kingpin (Glenn Fleshler). Bashing in the face of the young ex-con, Mikey (Richie Merritt), stirs the vengeful ire of this volatile crime boss, who uses an unassuming fish market as the front for his operation but will beat a guy to a pulp on the sidewalk in broad daylight for shorting him.
And so these two wildly violent men find themselves on a collision course with each other, with a massive body count piling up in their wake. But there’s nothing especially inspired about the choreography or execution of these action sequences. They’re quick and dirty, albeit with squirm-inducingly vivid sound design. Clean takes on a John Wick-like quality in his ability to plow through countless goons with a simple pickaxe or whatever else he finds lying around, and that whole good-with-his hands business comes into play once again as he crafts his own makeshift arsenal.
Again, merely watching Brody engaging in such painstaking work is interesting; the generic bloodbath that ensues, less so.
Now playing in theaters and available on digital platforms.
Adrien Brody as Clean
Glenn Fleshler as Michael
Richie Merritt as Mikey
Chandler Ari DuPont as Dianda
Michelle Wilson as Ethel
John Bianco as Frank
Dinora Walcott as Hartley