Police officers Danny Fisher (Cena) and Hank Carver (Brian White) are out on patrol when they get word that the FBI is tracking international terrorist, Miles Jackson (Aiden Gillen, HBO's "The Wire", the British version of "Queer as Folk") through the French Quarter. Danny is a little out of it as he and his girlfriend, Molly (Ashley Scott) have just moved into a place, together, living together for the first time, and she is already talking about marriage. Driving through the Ninth Ward, they come to a red light next to a BMW driven by a beautiful woman. Danny quickly realizes he has seen this woman in surveillance footage of Miles, she is Miles' girlfriend, and they pursue the car. One thing leads to another and these two officers, but more so Danny, have arrested Miles and his girlfriend is dead. A year later, Danny and Hank have been promoted to Detective and still work together trying to keep the streets of New Orleans safe. As Danny leaves his house, he gets a phone call from Miles. Miles has escaped from prison and wants to play a little game. If Danny follows the instructions and is successful, he will get Molly back. Miles wants to take away the thing Danny loves most in retaliation for the death of his girlfriend. As Danny listens to this message, he realizes he has no choice and begins racing through the streets of New Orleans, trying to keep up with the madman's requests. Along the way, he gets Hank involved and the FBI agents who botched the original arrest, hard as nails Special Agent George Aiken (Steve Harris, TV's "The Practice") and his more compassionate partner Special Agent Ray Santiago (Gonzalvo Menendez) insist on becoming involved. But what is Miles really after?
Directed by Renny Harlin ("Die Hard II", "Cliffhanger", "Cutthroat Island", "The Long Kiss Goodnight"), the new film certainly has all of the action elements that made Harlin's good films so memorable. But "12 Rounds" also has all of the bad elements that made Harlin's bad films so very, very terrible.
But let's start with Cena. This is his second film and the wrestler is being groomed to become a movie star. But from the first moment he appears on screen, you immediately realize he has to have been a wrestler; he is massive and looks like an oak tree, so it will be difficult for him to play a variety of roles. But I don't say this simply because of his physical stature. I say this because of his lack of screen charisma. He is always so serious, so dour, so intent, so joyless I don't expect he will ever be able to cross over to dramas or romance or comedies. He may get typecast in action roles, the type of films where he is always a detective, always in the army (special ops) or always someone out to get the bad guys. I suspect he may become the next Sylvester Stallone. When he has one hit film, his career will be made from countless sequels.
Cena certainly appears earnest in his attempted portrayal of Danny. But he never really seems to have any chemistry with Molly, the love of his life. In fact, he simply looks scared every time they appear together on screen. Maybe this is the wrestler's subconscious signifying his fear of actually portraying love, but he simply seems awkward.
In "12 Rounds", he isn't given the opportunity to do anything over than look serious or worry about something. Maybe this was a smart choice by the filmmakers. In the beginning, he and Hank are chasing Miles and his girlfriend. When Miles has been arrested, we flash forward a year and Miles begins pulling the strings attached to Danny, working him like the puppet the terrorist wants him to be. So, for almost two hours, Danny is chasing something, or trying to put out a fire, while careening through the streets of New Orleans. He is never given the chance to change emotions, to smile, to laugh, to try to be romantic. Maybe the filmmakers realized he doesn't have the ability to show these finer acting skills. Yep. Definitely the next Stallone.
Aiden Gillen walks through the film like a maniacal puppet master. He always appears bemused and he has every right to; everyone is doing exactly what he wants, how he wants, when he wants. His plan is working perfectly. Actually, too perfectly. Miles Jackson clearly spent the year in prison working out every detail of this complex plan. Gillen gives Jackson the right touch of laissez fair, the right tone to be a villain. I could almost enjoy Gillen's performance (the villains are always the most interesting characters anyway) if it weren't so textbook. I can imagine Gillen looking up the definition of "arch villain" in the dictionary and pulling all of his character's traits from that brief definition. But at least he appears to be having fun. That puts him a couple of steps ahead of the rest of the group.
Because his plan is going so perfectly, it robs "Rounds" of some suspense. If everything is too easy, why do we care? The best action films present some moments of danger to both the hero and villain, giving each of them a temporary leg up on the other.
From the beginning, when we see the completely inept FBI agents botch Jackson's arrest, we quickly see the two agents each have one personality trait and Steve Harris (who was on TV's "Boston Legal") has a hard time making that one work. But Harris' FBI agent is on a mission and seems to have a personal vendetta against Jackson (both commonly accepted traits for FBI agents to have in motion pictures) and doesn't seem to care how much collateral damage he leaves in the wake of his quest. The performance is pretty textbook and pretty laughable. How many people will the FBI let get injured or killed in their quest?
You've heard the term 'everything old is new again'? It's pretty common. But in the case of "12 Rounds", everything old is still old. And if something is just too much of a stretch to be believable, Harlin goes with it anyway and simply expects us to go along for the ride. This is generally the case with action films, but it's generally a good idea for the filmmakers to earn our belief, to make these moments at least semi-believable. Harlin doesn't do that in this film.
Danny and Santiago have to stop a runaway streetcar before it hits an outdoor celebration and a little girl standing directly in the way. The way they stop the streetcar? Laughable. At least they refrained from naming the streetcar Desire.
And Harlin seems to have borrowed every trick in the book for this routine action film. It has all the elements you would suspect from a high-octane thrill ride; improbable stunts, quick cutting, over the top danger and credibility stretching situations. But again, everything feels like it is created from a textbook. In fact, Harlin seems to have adopted, stolen, and borrowed from Tony Scott's frantic directing style. "12 Rounds" looks remarkably like Scott's "Déjà Vu", which was also filmed in New Orleans, both post-Katrina. Both films make use of the ferry crossing from Algiers to the Big Easy, both films use the Ninth Ward, both films use Scott's trademark 2-second rule; if a shot lasts for more than two seconds, its too long and you need to cut. In many instances, these cuts are to another angle of the same scene, or to the same shot, just a few seconds later or pushed slightly forward. Scott's camera is always moving and so is Harlin's never sitting on a single subject for long, keeping our attention moving to a new place all the time. This is annoying when Tony Scott does it, and Scott is a better director.
Harlin needs to create another original action film like he did in "Cliffhanger", perhaps the one truly memorable film on his resume. To do that, he needs to conceive an idea and figure out a way to blow our minds, to create something new and exciting. He also needs to shy away from projects produced by people trying to create something out of nothing. WWE Studios, the people behind Wrestle mania and all of the pay per view wrestling matches produce "12 Rounds". Cena is a former 'title holder'. WWE thinks Cena can become a movie star, so they have produced his first two films. Harlin needs to find someone with talent, a statement I find strange to make considering his most memorable film stars Sylvester Stallone.
If he doesn't, we'll soon see his name attached to an action series premiering on Fox. Soon. Very soon.