A film review by Craig J. Koban


12 ROUNDS ˝j

2009, PG-13, 105 mins.


John Cena: Danny Fisher / Ashley Scott: Molly Porter / Aidan Gillen: Miles Jackson / Steve Harris: Special Agent George Aiken 


Directed by Renny Harlin / Written by Daniel Kunka

Here are twelve observations about the new action thriller, 12 ROUNDS: 

1. John Cena desperately needs to stick to his day job. 

John Felix Anthony Cena’s Wikipedia page list his credentials as an American “professional wrestler, rap artist, and film actor.”  To be fair, he certainly has got one of the those nailed down pat.  I have only listened to a small and merciless sample of his hip hop music to easily declare it as an artistic write-off for him, but his acting career should have also ended with the miserable action thriller that was 2006’s THE MARINE.  As on display in that film – and, to much the same extent, in 12 ROUNDS – Cena most definitely has the physical prowess to give audiences the impression of a pedal-to-the-metal action star, but on a level of emotional charisma, he has the personality of a battered ring turnbuckle. 

To be fair, Cena does just about everything that is expected of him in 12 ROUNDS, which is to basically run around like an indestructible, Herculean freight train of a man that is virtually impervious to stabbings, gun fire, multiple explosions, and falling from vast distances.  What is is not impervious to, alas, are bad line readings.  On a basic performance level, Cena is depressingly comatose.  Compared to other former wrestlers that have made a modestly successful segue into movies (like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), there is not one scintilla of charm or easy-going likeability to Cena.  His enunciation of individual lines is cringe worthy, not to mention that he carries about him an aura of a man that simply does not know how to act from one scene to the next.  Considering the film’s story – which asks him to look progressively more distressed and anxious as the film progresses – he maintains an annoying one note level of tough guy stoicism…which makes it certainly hard for me to give a damn about his character.  You gain the impression of an “actor” that outwardly appears more befuddled and confused with the prospect of memorizing his few scent lines than appearing to have a grasp on his character in any meaningful way.   

On a level of laughably inert and cringe worthy dramatic range, Cena makes Steven Segal look like Lawrence Olivier.  Perhaps he has the potential playing small bit parts as hulking, brute antagonists in films, but he simply has too much brawn and not enough thespian chops to fully capitalize as an action hero to fully carry a film.      

2. This film is a career killer for director Renny Harlin. 

Stick a fork in it, Renny, because 12 ROUNDS considers your career very much done. 

What the hell happened to him?  At one point in the early 1990’s he looked poised to becoming one of the most sought after and dependable action film directors working in Hollywood (early films, like the first great DIE HARD sequel, DIE HARDER, and the terrifically executed Sylvester Stallone vehicle, CLIFFHANGER, displayed his knack for testosterone induced mayhem and carnage).  His career took a notable nosedive with failed vanity projects like CUTTHROAT ISLAND, THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT, and the laughably silly race car flick, DRIVEN.  By the time he was hired on as a cheap and disposable replacement for the trouble EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING in 2004, you just sort of knew that Harlin’s clout was beginning to see better days. 

This inevitably takes me to my next observation…. 

3. If you enter a cinema, sit down, and see that the first logo that appears before the film reads, “WWE Studios”….immediately flee the theatre. 

I am not sure what is more depressing:  The notion that a once promising action director fell from grace so quickly into B-grade level obscurity, or the fact that he has embarrassingly reduced himself to making a shamelessly awful action project headed up by WWE’s film division?  

First rule of career resurrection for any director: don’t have your name appear on the billboard credits alongside those of a professional wrestling organization that has no business making films in the first place. 

Then again…I guess if you are a fan of Cena and the WWE, then 12 ROUNDS offers up a relative plateful of the best ingredients of its wrestling show: steroid induced superman flashy off their impossibly huge biceps, a lot of soullessly  choreographed and mindless action, equally brainless female characters that border on pure, sexist window dressing, and plotlines that could not tread water even in the shallow end of a pool. 

4. Hollywood action films desperately need to put a permanent moratorium on the “shaky cam”…once and for all. 

Call it “queesy cam”…call it “shaky cam”…whatever…but this has got to be one of the most glaringly annoying habits of both novice and veteran filmmakers as of late.  Enough already! 

12 ROUNDS has to be one of the most horribly over directed and hyperactively edited action films I have seen in many a moon.  Harlin’s camera simple does not sit still for one single damn minute during the film...not even for what would appear to be the quieter and more introspective dialogue moments between characters.  I have seen many an action film that has contained cruelly agitated camera work and cinematography, but 12 ROUNDS is another kind of amateurish, stomach churning hatchet job altogether.  The way Harlin hyperactively zooms in and out of what could have been modest setups is eye fatiguing to the max, but just look at the horrendous results that come out of him using his frenetically zoom-laden camera during closed-in action sequences (like the final climatic one), where the fight scene takes place within a very tight and confined area and the shots go by with such blistering, haphazard speed that it becomes next to impossible to make sense out of anything. 

One conclusion could be made out of this inexcusable stylistic excess: Harlin hoped that filming 12 ROUNDS like this would generate a sense of deep immersion within the viewers, but all it serves up is pure exhaustion.  Not only that, but it’s a cheap parlor trick too: it falsely conveys a sense of intensity to the proceedings, but the film could have been that much more thrilling and provocative with a more intuitively understated approach.   

For the love of God: non-stop and continuous camera movement does not create a sensation of unadulterated energy and exhilaration: all it creates is migraines. 

5. Ashley Scott has the dubious credit of appearing in two lackluster action films that have starred two professional wrestlers. 

Yup…she appeared in 2004’s WALKING TALL with The Rock and now she appears opposite of John Cena.  Now, Scott is an infectiously gorgeous and spunky presence (she was very solid in the terribly short-lived series JERICHO), but in WALKING TALL and 12 ROUNDS she is uniformly saddled with the most painfully rudimentary of all female film parts: the kidnapped, gagged, and helpless girlfriend/ fiancé/ wife whose only purpose in the film is to facilitate the male hero’s revenge motivation against the killer.  An appealing presence like Scott most assuredly deserves better. 

6.  While watching 12 ROUNDS I spent more time trying to read the text messages of the person sitting in front of me in the theatre than I did actively engaging the film's story. 

This plot is a real, eye-rolling howler.  Detective Danny Fisher (Cena) manages to locate one of the world’s most untraceable and dangerous terrorist minds, Mile Jackson (Aidan Gillen), but in the process of initially capturing Fisher he inadvertently kills the terrorist’s girlfriend.  Big mistake.  Flash forward a year and the terrorist has escaped from prison and has now kidnapped Fischer’s girlfriend (Scott) and now forces Fisher to play a 12 round game of cat 'n mouse that, if Fisher wins, will result in his girlfriend’s safe return.   

Okay...reality check time.  Why this madmen would simply not just blow up Fisher and his girlfriend to kingdom come while in their home is beyond me, but the film goes to incredulous and ridiculous levels to show how far the terrorist goes to in order to enact his revenge.  He clearly has watched THE DA VINCI CODE too many times.  Jackson meticulously places clues all throughout New Orleans that (a) no possible human being hell bent on revenge would ever plot and (b) no human being chasing the villain that planted them would be able to follow.  The longer the film progresses the more moronic and inane each round becomes…which becomes so unintentionally hilarious that it almost emerges a self-parody of revenge/action films - think SAW crossed with SPEED, minus the gore, inspired action sequences, and passably agreeable characters.  Few films flirt with imbecilic implausibility as much as 12 ROUNDS does: it grabs absurdity in a big bear hug and bursts it at the seams. 

7.  Action films are only as good as their main villains. 

Aidan Gillen is a fine actor, but he never once carves a niche for himself in 12 ROUNDS as an even modestly intriguing and scary villain.  There is never once a scene where he comes across as a memorably imposing and ruthlessly conveying villain in the classic DIE HARD-ian mould (which the film pathetically is aiming for at times).  The sheer groan-inducing dialogue he is forced to repeatedly spew, not to mention the head-shaking insanity of the underlining plot, certainly does not assist his performance.  By the time Cena has his way with him in the end you don't get a sense of cathartic satisfaction…you more or less feel completely relieved that the film will be over soon to allow you to get on with your life.. 

8.  Setting this film in New Orleans is somewhat offensive in itself. 

This part bothered me more than I thought.  Seeing New Orleans used here – especially after being devastated by Hurricane Katrina just a few short years ago – as a backdrop where the action hero needlessly and carelessly destroys and ravages his way through it shows a dreadful lack of thoughtfulness and insight from the makers.  This only heightens the desperation of the makers in general to see this sort of numbingly routine and depressingly sterile action film see the light of day.  I dunno…but to see Cena and company lay various parts of the city to waste – all in an effort to save his hot babe of a girlfriend – just left a bad taste in my mouth.  Physically sacrificing a city that recently saw too much tragedy for one lifetime for the sake of a cookie-cutter action flick without a brain in its head seems unpleasantly distasteful. 

9. As a total abomination of narrative common sense and intelligence, not to mention filmmaking skill, 12 ROUNDS is not even entertainingly or amusingly bad. 

Some bad films celebrate their awfulness like a badge of honor.  Regrettably, 12 ROUNDS does not even make a half-hearted attempt to be moderately fun, even in the midst of all of a startling lack of innovation and its inescapably wrongheaded direction and acting.  One thing is for certain: decades from now, 12 ROUNDS will hold a very esteemed place on a list of action films that are totally bankrupt of originality and style. 

10.WWE Studios should cease operation altogether. 


Someone should pay off John Cena and force him to put WWE chairman Vince McMahon into a brain hemorrhaging head lock in order to coerce him to never make a wrestler-helmed action film…and I mean, like, ever again. 

11. Defending this mercilessly awful film is…well…borderline indefensible. 

12 ROUNDS is 105 minutes long.  That, in my estimation, is 105 minutes too long.  Perhaps it takes a special sort of sly and open-minded individual to appreciate this film.  Alas, I am not one of these people.  On a positive, I would categorize 12 ROUNDS as a minor miracle film: it's positively miraculous how its makers thought that there was a film here worthy of theatrical release.  Films like this belong in the graveyard that is the direct-to-video shelf at your local video store.

12.  I should have never seen this film. 

And neither should you.  Trust me: 12 ROUNDS is horrendous in more than twelve ways,

  H O M E