You might think that 12 Rounds is the exact same movie as The Marine, an already-forgotten 2007 action movie also starring wrestler-turned-pretty-much-still-just-a-wrestler John Cena, but you'd be wrong. In The Marine, Cena plays an unstoppable marine whose wife gets kidnapped by very bad men. In 12 Rounds, Cena plays an unstoppable police officer whose girlfriend gets kidnapped by a very bad Irishman. Completely different.
Cena, to his credit, shows slightly more dimension in his second starring vehicle. As Detective Danny Fisher, he expresses a surprising (for an action hero) amount of guilt over a bust of master criminal/terrorist Miles Jackson (Aidan Gillen), the aforementioned Irishman, which resulted in the accidental death of Jackson's equally psychotic lady love. Exactly one year later, as both the subtitles and expositional dialogue tell us, Jackson resurfaces to exact his revenge: He takes Fisher's beloved Molly (Ashley Scott), and puts the cop through a series of death-defying stunts. Article continues below
In contrast to the elemental stupidity of The Marine, the setup I just described in a paragraph (and the film's trailer conveys in about 30 seconds) takes 12 Rounds about half an hour to explain, complete with even more exposition squawked over police and FBI radio -- strange how the lawmen always remind each other who the bad guy is and what he's done right before they move in on him. Neither the excessive exposition nor the Danny Fisher character development is particularly skillful or entertaining, but they at least show a little effort.
Further Cena progress can be traced through the types of movies his newest endeavor rips off. While The Marine was eighties-style junk, 12 Rounds, with its villain's taunting phone calls and vehicular near-homicides, is more reminiscent of a Die Hard or Speed knock-off from the mid-nineties. It's even directed by Renny Harlin, who made Die Hard 2, as well as Deep Blue Sea and The Long Kiss Goodnight; at his best, he masters the art of the slick knock-off.
Harlin's direction of 12 Rounds is slick, too -- so slick that the movie slips and slides between unrelated set pieces with restless, constant motion. This despite the heavy machinery of said pieces, which most often involve creative use of vehicles: a hurtling boat used to stop a car, a fire engine driven on a train platform, or a car used to cut off a trolley's electrical supply.
That last bit, with Cena nonchalantly hopping between his car and the runaway trolley, is actually sort of fun. Also fun, or at least laugh-out-loud funny: the climactic moment in which Fisher tussles with the bad guy, and his girlfriend helpfully calls out: "Danny, he's got a gun!" She'd be great on the police radio.
But even with those hilarious bits and the incremental technical advancement it shows from the humble beginnings of The Marine, 12 Rounds suffers from more or less the same problem: it's stupid, but not quite delightfully stupid. Cena's brawn doesn't have much personality, nor does it achieve a transcendent lack of personality. His movies are instant relics, narrowly escaping a horrific direct-to-DVD death. For now.