The title may suggest boxing, but this second WWE feature for one of its star grapplers, John Cena, still feels more like a wrestling match, a contest between a put-upon good guy and a malevolent opponent who will stop at nothing to defeat the hero. In that “12 Rounds” isn’t much different from “The Marine,” the first Cena WWE vehicle.
But though it shares its basic plot with the earlier picture—Cena, here a New Orleans cop, must go through hoops to save his girlfriend, who’s been kidnapped by a heartless crook, this time a terrorist he’d captured a year earlier, causing the death of the guy’s moll in the process—the presentation is a lot more elaborate this time around. The director, Renny Harlin, is an old hand at big-budget actioners, and he stages the succession of set-pieces—chases, explosions, fist-fights, last-second escapes and even an inevitable struggle aboard a helicopter—with an aplomb that “The Marine” might have aspired to but never achieved with its much humbler cash flow and less experienced crew.
But all the expertise is wasted on a plot that one might say goes from the sublime to the ridiculous except for the fact that it bypasses the sublime part. The premise of Daniel Kunka’s script is that Miles Jackson (Aiden Gillen), the sadistic killer who escapes the prison to which Danny Fischer (Cena) had sent him, sets up a series of twelve elaborate “tests” that the cop must pass in order to save his lovely live-in g.f., a nurse named Molly (Ashley Scott). The recklessness with which our hero goes about filling Miles’s demands in the requisite time is truly amazing—he mows down whole city blocks with a fire truck, for example, though no one seems injured in the process. But naturally he wins every “round” just in time to undertake the next, even though he’s being harassed by the officious, arrogant FBI agent (Steve Harris) who couldn’t capture Jackson a year earlier and let him escape now.
But as if Jackson’s “game” weren’t absurd enough, based as it is on the assumption that everyone will do exactly what he foresees (explained, I guess, by the fact that we’re shown early on his skill at chess), the twist that the plot takes at the end—it turns out that the whole kidnapping business is merely obfuscating prelude to a secret scheme Miles actually has in mind—takes the whole business into the stratosphere of high idiocy.
Of course, one isn’t supposed to apply any logical rules to a movie that’s essentially nothing more than a succession of feints and grunts, like the multiple holds and reverses on a wrestling mat. But even the virtually non-stop action of this movie isn’t enough to conceal how completely nonsensical it is.
As for Cena, he’s a beefy, buffed-up fellow of minimal acting skill, and one seriously doubts that he has the makings of a movie star. But one would have said the same thing about Arnold Schwarzenegger at the time of “Commando” (1985), and look what became of him. Nobody else distinguishes himself, with Gillen ludicrously lightweight as the villain, Scott colorless as the fiancee, and Brian White too broad as the hero’s partner. It’s especially sad to watch Steve Harris, perhaps still best remembered for his years as Eugene Young on “The Practice,” posturing as the snooty FBI agent whose equipment never works quite as promised. It’s a thankless part, and Harris looks clearly unhappy stuck in it.
“12 Rounds” isn’t as slick as the most expensive Hollywood action flicks, but it’s a distinct improvement technically over “The Marine.” That’s the result of its pedigree, but a pedigree counts only for so much. The advertisements describe the picture as coming from the director of “Die Hard 2” and the producer of “Speed” (Mark Gordon). Unfortunately, it combines the defects of those two movies without managing any of their virtues.