Friday, July 10, 2009

12 Rounds

Director: Renny Harlin
Starring: John Cena, Aiden Gillen, Ashley Scott, Steve Harris, Gonzalo Menendez, Brian J. White, Taylor Cole
Running Time: 108 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)

For John Cena, timing is everything. And I'm not just talking about his wrestling career. He's lucky enough to be starring in an action movie that's following one of the worst action movies I've seen in years. It was pretty much a given that 12 Rounds, the latest WWE Films release would at least be more entertaining than the latest Transformers sequel. What was less clear was whether it would actually be any good. It really isn't, but it's still the most impressive WWE produced film yet and thoroughly entertaining in its badness. There's actually some level of directorial competence at work here and it appears someone at least knew what type of film needed to be made. It's a cheesy, mindless direct-to-DVD actioner of the week with a lot of laughs and stupidity. Approach it as that and it's at least possible to enjoy yourself, which is more than can be said for most of their other efforts.

I guess it's a credit to director Renny Harlin that he fills the film with such unintended hilarity and craziness that Cena's performance is the last thing on our minds. The movie isn't dependent on him in any way and his weaknesses are well hidden, if not completely invisible here. That's how it should be. Harlin actually does such a good job covering for Cena's shortcomings as an actor maybe he can have a future directing episodes of WWE Raw on Mondays.

The script, on the other hand, is off the wall, even for this type of film, and features one of the more unnervingly bizarre villains in a recent bad action movie. It's hard to tell what's weirder: The performance of the actor playing him or the character's 12 round "plan," a conceit so complicated and time consuming he may as well be auditioning as Jigsaw's next apprentice. Still, despite not caring a lick about the protagonist's fate or his mission, it's hard to really slam a movie that lets us follow the journey of an obese man down an elevator shaft all the way down to the bottom, gives us a grown man raising a toy Matchbox car in victory, or employs the use of a defribillator in a mid-air showdown. It's bad, but boy is it funny.

Cena is New Orleans Police Detective Danny Fisher, who a year ago was part of a sting operation that put notorious terrorist and arms dealer Miles Jackson (The Wire's Aiden Gillen) behind bars and unintentionally resulted in the death of his girlfriend, Erika (Taylor Cole). Now he's out and wants revenge on Danny for taking the love of his life. The plan: kidnap Danny's girlfriend, Molly (Ashley Scott) and make him complete a 12 round game to save her, with each round presenting a challenging life or death task. If he completes all 12 rounds, she lives. If not, they both die. This is made all the more challenging by the involvement of bitter F.B.I. agent Aiken (Steve Harris) whose motives for helping Danny get through this are questionable and selfish. Keeping Molly alive is close to last on his priority list, or at least far behind making an example of Miles. He has his own axe to grind and if innocent people have to lose their lives in the process then so be it. Will Danny make it through all 12 rounds? Will Molly survive? Will Triple H. ever retire? Well, okay, that last one isn't directly related, but you get the idea.

Daniel Kunka's silly script is absolutely insane and makes little to no sense. Best of luck trying to figure out what constitutes a "round." I got the first two. Miles blows up Danny's house and kidnaps his girlfriend. It's after that where things start to get a little fuzzy as at times during the film multiple "rounds" are crammed into single tasks (like one involving a bomb). The perilous situations themselves vary from being ridiculously complicated to mind numbingly simple. There's just no in between as Kunka seems to be throwing ideas out there to see what sticks. Some are much more exciting than others, namely that aforementioned elevator scene and Danny's attempt to stop a runaway bus as it plows through the streets of New Orleans in a sequence that recalls (or rather rips off) Speed.

As a director, Harlin's track record contains some genre hits (Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger) and many more misses (Cutthroat Island, Driven and The Covenant) but the man does know how to shoot an action scene efficiently, which helps here a lot. His best days as a filmmaker are obviously behind him but for this kind of low level B action movie material his style (or what there is of it) is suitable. One scene where Danny comes face to face with his adversary but for reasons I can't reveal is unable to do anything, is tense and well staged.

If you get past Aiden Gillen's uncanny resemblance to former Survivor contestant Johnny Fairplay (which I honestly had problems doing) and are able to decifer whether he actually is speaking with an Irish accent, you'll find his performance to be a hoot. Existing in an acting realm somewhere between being brilliantly awful and awfully brilliant he doesn't really have a menacing presence at all and that's why it kind of works. It makes the role a little more believable because he looks and acts like a regular guy with a plan.

Gillen actually plays him like he's smart and ahead of the curve, which is a sharp contrast to the ridiculous actions this screenplay have him carry out. To put it mildly, Miles' plan has some big holes in it and at times I found myself laughing hysterically at the amount of years this character must have put into his master plan, which besides allowing no room for error, feels like it came straight out of a Hollywood screenwriting factory. The script also makes the mistake of having his motivations be revealed as being significantly less than they first appeared, robbing the story of what little psychological intrigue there is and making the villain seem more like a small-time crook than a mastermind. It's an odd decision that doesn't benefit the dramatics of the story in the slightest.

It's a real irony if you're familiar with Cena's in-ring career that the failings of this film fall squarely on the writing, not him. None of this would have been improved if he was replaced by any other B or C level actor as the lead and his work in this is a vast improvement over his embarrassingly stiff turn in The Marine a couple of years ago. The role of a risk-taking police detective also seems to suit him much better. This isn't to say it's a emotionally engaging performance at all, but it's at least a competent one that doesn't make the film any worse than it already is. He's your prototypical, action action hero and for a generic action thriller like this, that's enough.

Because his performance is merely adequate the strain is on the script to get us to care about Danny's relationship with his girlfriend and his quest to save her. I didn't. Ashley Scott is horrid in her limited role and no time is donated to the two of them. We haven't a clue why he'd even bother, other than the fact that she's supposed to be hot. This was expected though and it's hard to come down too hard on that decision. This is supposed to be a mindless action movie and I fear if time were actually spent in establishing a meaningful relationship between Danny and Molly the two actors wouldn't have been up to the task of conveying it and the film would have sunk further. Do you really want to see Cena playing house with his girlfriend? I can't even picture it.

No attention or background is given to the Miles character either, which does hurt the film a little. That could have been interesting and enhanced the narrative. Miles' motivations were more important than Danny's in caring what happens. The most interesting sub-plot concerns Harris' renegade F.B.I. agent, thanks in no small part to his commanding performance, which almost seems to be out of a better film. Even with all its problems though, the 108 minutes thankfully came and went quickly.

You could make an airtight case that WWE should just stay out of producing feature films altogether but as long as they turn even the slightest profit either in theaters or on DVD that isn't going to happen any time soon. We're stuck with them. Next up: The Marine 2 (can't wait). I would say this nudges out The Condemned as their best effort and technically it's difficult to argue that it didn't deserve a brief theatrical run (albeit about 3 days). It's also difficult to argue that it shouldn't have gone straight to DVD. And in a way, it did. Supposedly, all WWE films are now going straight to the bargain shelf, which is probably a good move. But if they're serious about producing movies, 12 Rounds is at least the type of movie they should be making. And Cena can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that he gave this his best shot.

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