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Like a Chair Over the Head

By Daniel Carlson | Film | March 27, 2009 |

By Daniel Carlson | Film | March 27, 2009 |

At what point do straightforward action films cross the line into self-parody? The genre has become so overtly and specifically stylized in recent years that the same filmic tropes that serve as shorthand to communicate to the viewer that he/she is watching something that could be classified as a “modern action film” are the same gimmicks that would be used to mock the entire field; watch The Rock and Hot Fuzz back to back, and you won’t know where seriousness ends and emptyheaded self-awareness begins. That’s the first of two major problems with 12 Rounds, the latest action vehicle directed by the unbelievably talentless Renny Harlin: It is so entrenched in zooms, rack focusing, erratic camerawork, vague technology, and every other bland signifier of the genre that it is virtually indistinguishable from a satire of itself, which makes watching the film sort of jaw-droppingly self-reflexive in a hall of mirrors kind of way but also just plain boring. But the other major issue — among the dozens of minor ones — is that the film from first-time screenwriter Daniel Kunka is a laughably shameless ripoff of Die Hard With a Vengeance, Speed, and just a touch of Saw. It’s not enough that the hacky newcomer resorted unironically to lines like “Don’t be a hero!” and “Don’t be a cowboy!” and other warnings of macho things not to be. It’s that the plot is so howlingly derivative of those films that 12 Rounds doesn’t even stand on its own as a failure; it’s unoriginal to boot.

Det. Danny Fisher (John Cena) is a New Orleans police officer who made rank by helping the FBI capture Miles Jackson (Aiden Gillen), an Irish arms dealer who gets caught up in a bad deal and double-cross. Danny actually arrests Miles after pursuing the villain’s car on foot, one of the many dubious things a man of Cena’s size is made to do in the film (others include using proper facial expressions). Miles is plenty pissed when Danny finally catches him, but gets downright annoyed when a runaway truck careens through the scene and runs over Miles’ girlfriend/getaway driver. Miles swears vengeance on Danny, and sure enough, one year later he returns to collect. Having broken out of prison, Miles kidnaps Danny’s girlfriend, Molly (Ashley Scott), and promises Danny that he’ll let the woman live if Danny agrees to play a game. But rather than the Simon Says that played out across New York in Die Hard With a Vengeance, Miles challenges Danny to a match of that old family classic, 12 Rounds. Basically, Miles will issue a challenge for Danny in each round that involves potential death and destruction to the citizenry and public works, and it will be up to Danny to stop the bomb/fire/whatever. Needless to say, this involves a lot of running and jumping for Danny, as in the scene where he tosses a giant wooden spool of cable out a window to rappel down a building or when he borrows a car to jump onto a speeding trolley, which should sound familiar.

The film breaks down even further when Danny’s partner, Hank Carver (Brian White), approaches the problem from another angle and works the phones, researches Miles’ former fellow inmates, and tracks down Miles’ cohorts in New Orleans in a way that’s so completely like Jeff Daniels’ character in Speed that Harlin and Kunka should be paying royalties to Jan de Bont. It’s not just that you know early on that Carver is probably going to meet a less than enjoyable fate, or that he’s likely in danger just because Kunka needed a way to try and appear to raise the stakes for Danny. It’s that these exact things have happened before. In movies. That we have seen. Just like this one. Harlin is also fond of spontaneous bursts of fast-motion and a combination of lighting and frame-rate adjustments that give certain scenes a “CSI” vibe that does nothing to help the story and just makes the film look even more hackneyed.

The bulk of the film is occupied with Danny’s attempts to stop Miles’ nefarious and admirably convoluted plans to destroy the city, and the “tense” relationship he develops with the federal agents who are also interested in capturing Miles and not above using Danny to do it, including agents Aiken (Steve Harris) and Santiago (Gonzalo Menendez). Everything that happens has happened before in some ancient ur-movie that apparently dictates to C-level writers and directors just how these things are supposed to play out: The FBI attempts to trace Miles’ cell phone when he calls Danny, but he keeps hanging up before they can get a lock; Danny butts heads with the feds before they eventually come to terms and work together; Miles double-crosses some of his own men just for money; etc.

The film is from Fox Atomic and WWE Studios, and it’s nothing more than an opportunity for Cena, a pro wrestler, to continue to try his hand at being an action star. (His first feature was 2006’s The Marine.) He’s built like a tank and definitely looks the part as long as the role calls for speechless killings and typical stuntwork. But Cena has miles to go before he even reaches the level of competent amateur on screen, and in his officer’s blues he looks like a kid playing dress-up. He’s not totally incompetent; as a wrestler, he has to have some skill in selling the unbelievable, even if his typical audience is less than discerning. But whenever he’s called upon to emote, or even give a realistic line reading, he hits the wall. The rest of the cast is padded with character actors who could be good if given better material, particularly Harris, who proved himself capable of depth on “The Practice,” and Gillen, who has wandered so far from his most notable role of Tommy Carcetti on HBO’s “The Wire” that seeing him in this unsalvageable dreck almost broke my heart. Between the general and specific borrowings — in other words, between being the same as every other modern action flick and the same as two or three certain ones — 12 Rounds is unrepentantly shitty, the kind of unapologetic mess no one should ever have to pretend to care about. Even the twists/”twists” are largely composited from the earlier films. There is nothing here worth remembering.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.