If a story about a reformed killer returning to his murderous ways to hunt down and slaughter Russian mobsters sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the synopsis for “John Wick.” It’s also, however, the premise of “Clean,” director Paul Solet’s thriller — co-written by leading man Adrien Brody — about a hit man getting back in homicidal business. Obvious and derivative in borderline-shameless fashion, it’s a B-movie knock-off with little originality and even less flair. That’ll make it a tough sell following its Tribeca Film Festival premiere (delayed from last year), although genre fans hungry for hackneyed action with a healthy dose of “Taxi Driver”-ish brooding may welcome its by-the-numbers mayhem.
In a dark, wintery New York City, Clean (Brody) performs his garbageman duties in the early morning, musing in interior monologues about the “sea of filth. An endless onslaught of ugliness … Where does it all go? I’ve got blood on my hands. I’m stained. I’m dirty. No matter how hard I try, I can’t wash away the past.” That effectively spells out the protagonist’s Travis Bickle-grade state of mind, as well as his secret, lethal past. Solet and Brody’s script wastes no time also likening him to a beaten dog (at which point he feeds a stray) and conveying, via flashbacks, his guilt-stricken grief over the death of his young Black daughter, which is why he now spends his mornings bringing food to in-need Black teen Dianda (Chandler DuPont).
“Clean” eventually throws some Christian religious elements and a giant Clean back tattoo into its mix — not to mention a climactic explosion of avenging-angel carnage that’s prefaced by Clean admitting he’s “back” — thereby completing its transformation into an unabashed riff on Keanu Reeves’ 2014 hit. Clean’s adversaries are first a group of Black men who want to corrupt Dianda, which motivates Clean to take his trusty wrench to their noggins. In the process, however, he winds up smashing in the face of Mikey (Richie Merritt), the recently paroled son of Russian drug kingpin Michael (Glenn Fleshler), who operates out of a fish market and who’s frustrated with his son for hanging out with Black hoods and listening to rap music. Between that thread and Clean’s own paternalism toward Dianda, it’s difficult to miss the white savior (and anti-Black men) narrative at play here.
Set to Brody’s hip-hop-infused score, “Clean” trudges slowly and gloomily toward each of its plot points, its trajectory so predictable that it’s hard to care about any of its particulars. Those also include Clean’s habit of selflessly renovating his community’s ramshackle homes, and his amiable friendship with a pawn shop owner (RZA) who buys his refurbished goods for cash. There’s no doubt that Clean will eventually go on a rampage or two, but the film draws out those payoffs to the point of aggravation. When they do arrive, they’re orchestrated with humorless severity, and what they lack in inventive combat choreography, they make up for in ruggedness, thereby adding to the material’s dour tone.
Reteaming with Solet following 2017’s “Bullet Head,” Brody grimaces with requisite anguish and rage, and like Solet’s clean and moody direction, he handles his violent responsibilities with aplomb. Yet there’s not much to be done with a leaden screenplay that has Clean say things like, “I’m just trying to save myself.” Fleshler is similarly stuck going through rote motions as a hulking menace with scary smiles and punishing fists. Redemption is as preordained as everything else in “Clean,” which makes sure to always keep its audience one step ahead of the action. At least it boasts a gruesome use of a flare gun, I guess.