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Code blue Cedric's latest laugher struggles for its comic breath

Just five days into the new year comes the first entry on the list of the Worst Films of 2007.

The dubious distinction belongs to "Code Name: The Cleaner," an action/comedy film that, sadly, doesn't provide much of either. In "Code Name: The Cleaner," Cedric the Entertainer plays Jake Rodgers, a lovable galoot who, after a bonk on the head, awakes with case of amnesia and a briefcase (does anyone carry those anymore?) full of cash. With very little evidence, Jake convinces himself that he is a secret ops agent on deep undercover trying to thwart an international arms conspiracy. While a gang of Central Casting G-men try to get him to give up a missing micro-chip, a hot blond (Nicollette Sheridan) tries to convince him he is a captain of industry and her husband; and an equally hot brunet (Lucy Liu) tries to convince him of the terrible truth: He is a video-game loving janitor who just found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The movie's official Web site touts "Code Name: The Cleaner," as a funny spin on "The Bourne Identity." Oh, if only. Unfortunately, whatever the intentions, the film never rises to the status of spoof. It hasn't a fraction of the over-the-top irreverence of say, "Austin Powers." Nor does it have Elizabeth Hurley, a woman who knows a spy parody when she is cast in one, and who left the film in preproduction. No secret decoder ring needed to figure out why that happened.

The bottom line is that a movie billed as a comedy should not leave you wondering where the laughs are. As might be expected, most of the few laughs there are, are in the trailer.

Although Cedric and Liu both have producing credits, neither should be blamed for the mess that is "Code Name: The Cleaner." Blame should be heaped upon writers Robert Adetuyi ("Turn it Up") and George Gallo ("Midnight Run"), who delivered a stale sponge of script that sucks up the performers' attempts at free-wheeling ad lib.

Neither can director Les Mayfield ("Encino Man") deflect culpability. With any vision other than the sketchy one he brought to the set for this limp rag of a movie, maybe Cedric and Liu could have risen above the sloppy script.

The filmmakers relied too heavily on the comedic potential of juxtaposing Liu's martial arts skills against Cedric's. But as anyone who left adolescence behind by age 30 knows, there are only so many laughs that can be wrung out of the fat-guy-does-martial arts schtick, even when it is Cedric who is doing the posing and kicking. The filmmakers' fatal error was relying on Cedric's karate chops, not his comedic chops.

Based on the outtakes that run under the end credits, the editors, who spent close to a year trying to polish the awful off the film, cut most of the cast members' funniest, most organic ad libs, leaving in blander bits they thought would track better with test audiences. HUGE mistake. The slapdash editing left a film that is neither homage nor parody; neither "Charlie's Angels" nor "Austin Powers; neither Matt Damon nor Jackie Chan. No. What's left is just a big steaming dish of chop hooey.

Cedric, who knows a bit about movie messes after starring in "The Honeymooners," soldiers on good-naturedly, keeping the movie from being completely flush-worthy.

Liu, too, does a yeoman's job with the material, and she sparkles in every scene she is in. Her chemistry-heavy scenes with Cedric are engaging, but not enough to make up for the slop they are slogging through.

Sheridan's turn is unexpectedly OK, with none of the Skeletor-Binges-on-the-Scenery acting technique seen weekly on "Desperate Housewives."

The scenes that offer up the few genuine laughs feature DeRay Davis ("School for Scoundrels") as Jake's janitor pal, Ronnie, AKA the Dirty Rapper, and Niecy Nash ("Reno 911!") as Jacuzzi, a sassy parking ramp attendant who has a bone to pick with Jake. Their scenes are the only ones to offer the giddy recklessness that's missing throughout the rest of the film.

"Code Name: The Cleaner" is a colossal waste of its stars' talent, and that's a dirty shame.




1 star (Out of 4)

STARRING: Cedric the Entertainer, Lucy Liu, Nicollette Sheridan and DeRay Davis

DIRECTOR: Les Mayfield

RUNNING TIME: 91 minutes

RATING: PG-13 for sexual humor, crude content and some violence

THE LOWDOWN: A video-game loving janitor ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time.

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