For some reason, Cleanskin (2012) feels ancient, even though it only came out seven years ago. That says more about the change in the political climate than it does about the film, which is professional enough, but distancing and dull. Ewan (Sean Bean) is an operative of the British intelligence services. His troubles begin on an undercover assignment, when the arms dealer he’s protecting is ambushed and a briefcase full of explosives is stolen for use in an Islamic terrorist bombing campaign. Ewan is tasked by his superior officer Charlotte (Charlotte Rampling) to track down and kill the extremists responsible — but the operation is unofficial, as the services are concerned they’ll be held responsible for losing the explosives in the first place. Ewan, a former British soldier traumatized by his war experiences in Afghanistan, undertakes the mission with a mix of somber resignation and ruthless efficiency. But his pursuit of Ash (Abhin Galeya), the radicalized British terrorist behind the theft, eventually reveals itself to be something other than what he expected.
Cleanskin is well produced and performed, and there’s a kernel of effective, world-weary truth to its core idea. But ultimately it doesn’t do enough to elevate itself. Its trappings are run-of-the-mill, twenty-first century spy thriller fare, the kind of stuff 24 and MI-5 had already done to death by the time of its release — and sometimes more effectively. Cleanskin does set itself apart slightly with an unusual structural focus on the terrorist, Ash, whose origin story is explored at length in extended flashbacks. These sections detail how he is recruited by an extremist named Nabil (Peter Polycarpou) and how his shifting allegiance shatters his romance with a young law student named Kate (Tuppence Middleton). But these diversions aren’t particularly unique or enlightening, and also significantly stall the forward momentum of the A story — which is a rather sluggish race against time punctuated by explosions of vicious violence. Alas, unless the prospect of watching Sean Bean portray a brooding, borderline sociopath holds some appeal, Cleanskin is easily missed.