Code Name: The Cleaner (2007) / Comedy-Action

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for sexual content, crude humor, and some violence
Running Time: 84 min.

Cast: Cedric the Entertainer, Lucy Liu, Nicollette Sheridan, Mark Dacascos, Callum Keith Rennie, Will Patton, DeRay Davis, Niecy Nash, Kevin McNulty
Director: Les Mayfield
Screenplay: Robert Adetuyi, George Gallo
Review published January 14, 2007

In case you thought that you could see light in the tunnel that is Martin Lawrence's shameless career, along comes another comedian that could very easily take his place in the dumb action comedy genre, Cedric the Entertainer (The Honeymooners, Be Cool).  Thus far, Cedric's made better films (barely), but in the case of Code Name: The Cleaner, it might appear he is taking another step in Lawrence's direction by putting himself in a film that requires him to ad-lib something amusing all on his own, mostly to no avail.  Looking at the credentials of the director, Les Mayfield (The Man, Flubber), I suppose it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise to learn that he directed a Martin Lawrence vehicle in the dreadful 1999 action-comedy, Blue Streak.  His formula remains the same here: let the comedian do all of the work, and hope for a miracle that he can be funny enough to save the film.  His formula fails in both cases.

Mayfield's idea of setting up a gag is to make sure to tell us the punch line first.  Jake asserts that he knows some sort of self-defense techniques several times before we actually see him in a dire situation.  Then there are moments when the set-up isn't even given, such as when Jake ends up on stage with a troupe of Dutch dancers, and as he struggles to look like he fits in, he suddenly nails the routine, including the catch phrase they yell out at the end.  Squeezing in product placement is also handled with just as little subtlety; one of the things Jake asks his would-be butler for is for some Skittles, and once received, it's not enough to just show them -- Jake is semi-orgasmic at the fruity flavor, even asking others to "taste the rainbow".  Quizno's and Best Buy have similar recurring mentions.

Does anyone actually watch this for the plot?  Just in case, here it is: In the beginning of the film, Jake Rodgers (Cedric) wakes up in a hotel room laying next to a dead FBI Agent and a briefcase full of money.  He doesn't know why he is there, not even remembering who he is, courtesy of a nasty lump on the head, but he knows that whatever he's into, he's going to have to get out of, and in a hurry.  On the way out he runs into a sexy woman named Diane (Sheridan, Beverly Hills Ninja) who tells him she's his wife, and with people apparently after him, he's in no mood to argue, following her to his wealthy estate.  He begins to suspect he is some sort of secret agent, but isn't quite sure who he works for and what he does. 

He soon gets an inkling that all is not what it appears when he runs across another woman, a waitress named Gina (Liu, Lucky Number Slevin), who claims to be his girlfriend.  She also tells him that he's a janitor working for a video game software manufacturer, although the flashbacks Jake has to a life in special ops tells him otherwise.  Not knowing who to believe, Jake finds he must get to the bottom of just what's going on, not only to gain his identity back, but also to keep from getting killed from any of the many different bad guys who seemingly are out to get him at every turn.

It's a difficult chore for a movie critic to come up with reasons why a film like this doesn't work.  Perhaps the easiest thing to say would be that it isn't funny, and leave it at that.  The most difficult thing is to pinpoint exactly why it isn't funny, and the reason for the difficulty is that, in a film that has so much wrong with it, it's almost impossible to know where to begin.  I suppose the first thing I could mention is that it appears that, despite two screenwriters names attached to the project, much of the film's comedy was ad-libbed.  The outtakes that are displayed during the end credits sequence confirms this, as most of these scenes feature lines of dialogue that are wholly different from the ones that made the final cut.  I'm not sure what words were in the original script, but I suspect that, during these scenes, it must have just been written as "[ad-lib funny stuff here]".

I could lay the blame on Cedric the Entertainer, but I think it wouldn't be fair to do so.  Cedric has proven to be a funny character actor in supporting roles in successful comedies, but I think that he does himself a disservice by thinking that he has what it takes to make a great comedy lead when he has nothing to work with.  The real blame should probably go to the movie studio and brain trusts that come up with vehicles for comedians, as it appears that their perennially brain-dead pattern is to stick them into conventional plots and assume that these talents will figure out a way to throw in a dozen gems out of thin air.  On occasion, they can strike gold, such as Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop or Jim Carrey in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.  However, for every success in this area, there are a dozen complete misfires, and when you're dealing with a comedian like Cedric, who is amusing due to his personality more so than possessing prodigious comedic inventiveness, it's a formula that's bound to fail.

The plot itself seems like it is lifted straight out of recent spy yarns like The Bourne Identity, complete with amnesia, a boring MacGuffin, and alluring femme fatales.  I think I'll sidestep the plot's problems because, in a vehicle like this, the quality of it is almost inconsequential.  It's used merely as a springboard for the comedic actors to play off of, and in this regard, it pushes things forward enough to introduce new characters for Cedric to engage comedically, as well as new locales to keep things fresh.  The only problem is that, with the exception of small supporting players in superfluous roles, like DeRay Davis and Niecy Nash, Cedric is virtually alone in trying to make something funny, mostly unsuccessfully.  Sheridan and Liu are mostly cast for their cheesecake qualities, including a ham-handed scene where Sheridan is told that Jake's memory can be triggered through sexual arousal (she strips down to lingerie and dances seductively), and in a later scene, Jake imagines both actresses playfully engaging in a mutual bubble bath.

Like many comedic actors, Cedric's ability to entertain resides mostly in the scripts he is given, and I think that, if he wants to continue to find success, he should avoid these sorts of movies where he has to work overtime in making up comedy out of thin air.  He is a much more funny character actor than he is a gifted ad-lib comedian.  Unfortunately, until someone realizes this limitation, we're probably going to be subjected to even more misfires like this -- movies that make it seem like he is a terrible comedian and actor. 

They say in comedy, you should never let the audience see you sweat.  With a film like Code Name: The Cleaner, the actors look like they performed most scenes in a sauna, with Cedric in particular looking like he might have dropped a few pounds out of sheer exertion on his part to try to squeeze out chuckles in places where none are to be found.  I'm actually hoping he won't lose the weight. With a more svelte figure, he runs the risk of resembling Martin Lawrence in more than just his bad script choices.  One is too many already.

 Qwipster's rating:

2007 Vince Leo