12 Rounds (2009)


Welcome back to our series of WWE reviews, where we try and tell you which movies starring bone-benders are worth spending time on – or just insulting them and the entire concept of a wrestling company making action movies, whichever seems more fun at the time.

John Cena is (non-Dwayne Johnson division) the most charismatic star the WWE has. He’s a decent wrestler, and in terms of acting can do action and comedy – unlike the other guys we’ve seen so far, you believe he’s an actual human being and not some curiously animated robot. After “The Marine” (which I rather liked), this was his next starring role, and it was back in the day when WWE still had some sort of pretensions about making mainstream movies, hence the co-starring role for Aidan Gillen and the hiring of Renny Harlin (“Die Hard 2”, “The Long Kiss Goodnight”) as director.

Cena is New Orleans cop Danny Fisher, a sort of loveable doofus who, while a very good husband, forgets stuff like fixing broken taps and where his gun is. He’s off for a shift with his partner Hank (Brian White) but the two of them get involved in a huge crime happening in the city. International arms dealer Miles Jackson (Gillen) is being transported across the city to stand trial, but a dirty FBI agent has helped him escape, but then Jackson kills him (presumably because you can never trust a dirty agent) and escapes with all his money and his girlfriend.

Danny is looking at old footage of Jackson as he happens to pull up alongside the girlfriend, which means he pursues the two of them across the city, on foot (because he’s awesome). Anyway, rather luckily he captures him, but she’s killed by a passing truck and this, understandably, upsets Jackson – but who cares because he’s off to prison, right?

A year later, the two cops have made Detective (entirely to do with that one night) but…well, here we get to the title of the movie. Two weeks previously, Jackson escaped from prison along with something like 30 other people, and wants revenge on Danny for the arrest / death of his girlfriend thing. After kidnapping Danny’s girlfriend, he sets in motion an impossible task he’s devised, 12 events across the city, involving rescuing runaway tram cars, deciphering clues, saving lives, making impossible decisions, and so on. The FBI agents who Danny showed up from before are back, too, but whose side are they on this time?

This is a pretty excellent basis for an action movie, honestly, and Harlin is a fine choice for directing (although I’m not sure he had tons of options, after the entirety of Hollywood sided with Geena Davis over their divorce). It also helps if you just pop your brain into neutral, because it’s based on a few fairly hefty “huh?” moments. Like, wouldn’t a prison break involving such a high-profile inmate have made the news, especially in cop circles? Wouldn’t someone have mentioned it to Danny anyway, even if it didn’t? And how does this notorious arms dealer get around the city to so precisely set all these tasks up without anyone noticing him? At one point, Jackson says to Danny “I know you, you’re predictable” – how? They’d never met and it’s not like they give inmates access to the files of the cops who arrested them. Plus, a rather large plot point at the end relies on one of the cast members being able to fly a helicopter, despite not a single clue they could do that in the movie to that point.

But, if you start doing this sort of thing with cheesy mid-budget action movies, you’ll be asking yourself questions til the end of time. Just accept the pieces are they’re placed on the chessboard. What then? Well, you can appreciate Cena’s performance, for one thing. I feel like he could be headlining bigger things than this, but he seems happy with his niche, wrestling, occasional movies and appearing on TV – here he’s a fine action hero, performing quite a few of his own stunts too, apparently. Gillen has a heck of a time as the villain, although his accent gets more and more Irish as things go on (perhaps the Finnish director couldn’t tell). The rest of the cast are pretty background-y and interchangeable, although it was fun to see Peter Navy Tuiasosopo, (aka E Honda from “Street Fighter”), pop up in a brief role.

I think it’s the script and direction that have something worth talking about, though. 12 rounds of anything in a 90 minute movie is going to be a squeeze, and they start to blend into each other at the end (it’s 24 hours later, and I could maybe name half the rounds). Don’t even start thinking how similar this is to “Die Hard With A Vengeance”, something the director must presumably have been aware of.

Harlin was on the skids by 2008, as mentioned, and “12 Rounds” came towards the end of a series of undistinguished genre fare, starring former A-listers on the way down; he’d work in TV for five years after this. His choice for this one was “handheld, all the way” and while it saved him a few dollars, it just looked terrible after a while. There’s a lot to be said for being able to frame a shot properly, but after the nth extreme shaky close up, I was pretty sure Harlin had long since lost that ability (or the cinematographer he hired, whoever). One doesn’t have to feel like the camera is part of the action to enjoy an action movie.

But, after all that, it’s a lot of fun, still. Good leading man, packed (perhaps too packed) with action, bit of humour, they seem to genuinely film in New Orleans so you can enjoy that, you could do a great deal worse. I look forward to part 2, where Cena hands over the reins to Randy Orton, so we’ll see you then.

Rating: thumbs in the middle