There are some people born to be second bananas who bomb when they try to take center-stage. Just think of Don Knotts, whose inspired Barney Fife practically made “The Andy Griffith Show” but whose movies were so amazingly awful that they’ve become legendary for all the wrong reasons. (“The Incredible Mr. Limpet,” anyone?) The Knotts template may well apply to Cedric the Entertainer. He was easily the best thing about Ice Cube’s “Barbershop” movies, but the vehicles fashioned around him have been terrible. It’s hard to imagine a more appalling excuse for a comedy in recent years than “Johnson Family Vacation.”
Cedric’s latest, “Code Name: The Cleaner,” isn’t as bad as that—or “The Honeymooners,” the botched updating of the old Jackie Gleason show in which he played Ralph Kramden. But it’s not good, either. It’s one of those “wrong man” action farces in which an ordinary fellow is caught up in some diabolical scheme. In this instance Cedric plays a guy who wakes up in a hotel room beside a dead FBI agent and a briefcase full of cash, suffering from a case of conveniently selective amnesia. After a near-fatal dalliance with Diane (Nicollette Sheridan), a rich blonde bombshell who claims to be his wife but is obviously up to no good, he links up with his apparent girlfriend Gina (Lucy Liu), a waitress, and, believing himself to be some sort of undercover agent, sets out with her to discover the truth about the “case” he must have been working on, pursued all the while both by the bad guys and by government types. The MacGuffin turns out to be some sort of super-secret computer chip, and the villain a corporate sleazebag (Mark Dacascos) who’s apparently out to sell it to America’s enemies. Or something like that.
One has to be approximate about this, because the plot is just an anarchic series of convolutions—chases, fights, flashbacks—whose sole purpose is to afford the star opportunities to do his shtick, often (as the inevitable outtakes show) in improvisational fashion. There’s some mildly funny stuff here, but also a good deal of overemphasis, grossness and repetition (and those outtakes certainly suggest that the editors chose the best stuff). And in the last reel the movie morphs into what’s pretty much an action showcase for the martial arts prowess of Liu and Dacascos (who once played heroes in chopsocky flicks but has now turned to the dark side; he’s still got the moves, though the skin is now stretched so tightly over his face that it looks as though he’s had reams of cosmetic surgery). There’s even a cat-fight between Liu and Sheridan that’s completely gratuitous and pretty dreadful.
For the duration of the combat, Cedric is thrown pretty much into the shade—not exactly a bad thing, since for the previous hour-plus he’s been at center stage almost non-stop, and though in small doses he can be extremely funny, his act pales after awhile. In fact, as “Cleaner” progresses, he comes increasingly to seem a chubby version of Martin Lawrence, with similar attitudes and reactions. And truth to tell, there aren’t many things we need less in today’s movies than a second Martin Lawrence.
“The Cleaner” has been directed and edited fairly crisply—rather a surprise since it was helmed by Les Mayfield, whose track record is woeful (he presided over Lawrence’s “Blue Streak” and most recently the appalling buddy comedy “The Man”)—and the physical production and cinematography are reasonably professional, although it must be said that the result doesn’t make the Seattle area, the locale of the action, appear particularly attractive. The makers have also surrounded the star with some able support—not just from Liu (who’s provided with some good put-downs of Cedric and, as usual, looks great) but from Will Patton, in scraggly hair and moustache, who proves a calming influence as a decent corporate guy. There’s also a scene-stealing turn by DeRay Davis as a janitor who fancies himself a rapper. Maybe he’s only doing what’s basically a stand-up routine, but it’s an attention-grabbing one, and it was generous of Cedric to give him the limelight to perform it. And a cameo by Niecy Nash as a sharp-tongued parking-garage attendant named Jacuzzi adds some momentary spice, too.
There have been lots of worse comedies that “The Cleaner”—unlike some of them, it doesn’t require a full trash-removal squad to fumigate the theatre after it’s over. But though one can imagine it working as a two-reeler in the days of Hal Roach, stretching the feeble premise out over ninety minutes leaves it feeling as thin as the skin on Mark Dacascos’ face. At least a quick sweep-up is in order.