Sometimes, even The A.V. Club isn’t impervious to the sexy allure of ostensible cultural garbage. Which is why there’s I Watched This On Purpose, our feature exploring the impulse to spend time with trashy-looking yet in some way irresistible entertainments, playing the long odds in hopes of a real reward and a good time.
Cultural infamy: Actually, 12 Rounds has a serious lack of cultural infamy. It opened in theaters on March 27, 2009, and it’s already dropped so far off the cultural radar that it might as well have never existed. In fact, maybe it doesn’t exist. Maybe it isn’t actually coming out on DVD on June 30. Maybe there isn’t really a film division of World Wrestling Entertainment. Maybe John Cena didn’t get another crack at a lead role in a $20 million movie. Did I just create this movie out of misremembered pieces of Die Hard With A Vengeance and Seven? A quick look at the opinion-aggregating sites tells me that it wasn’t a dream: 12 Rounds, which has grossed a paltry $15 million worldwide, does exist, but it wasn’t a hit with critics. Rotten Tomatoes says 28 percent fresh; Metacritic has it at a lowly 38. But beyond that evidence, I can’t find a single person who’s seen 12 Rounds.
Curiosity factor: I’m the one guy who actually liked Die Hard With A Vengeance. For all of its ridiculousness, it was actually pretty action-packed, and the silly little games that Jeremy Irons put Bruce Willis through made, y’know, the tiniest bit of sense. Also, you know what movie was junk-ass fun? The Marine, which also stars pro wrestler John Cena. And another thing… holy shit, I just realized that John Cena put out a rap album in 2005. He even did a track with Murs, and I think a couple with Bumpy Knuckles? My mind is a little blown, and that’s adding to the curiosity factor. Here’s a video from Cena’s debut hip-hop album, You Can’t See Me.
The viewing experience: Hmm. Well, watching 12 Rounds—which perhaps should’ve been called Why Didn’t They Ask Me To Direct Die Hard 3, Yours Truly, The Director Of Die Hard 2—is enjoyable in entirely different ways than watching John Cena rap. Neither has any chance of sticking in the brain past the period of ingestion. Yes, it’s possible to forget horribly forgettable movies even as they’re still playing.
But still, there were enough really ridiculous moments in 12 Rounds that it’s almost worth watching for a giggle or some mindless explosions. Don’t watch it hoping that there might actually be some art to it, because it’s a cheap carbon copy of its betters. Anyway, back to the title: Yes indeed, 12 Rounds was directed by Renny Harlin, whose resume includes Die Hard 2 and a recent string of movies that would embarrass Uwe Boll. (Cleaner, Exorcist: The Beginning, etc.) For those who haven’t seen it, Die Hard 3 involved a terrorist giving Bruce Willis a series of missions to complete around a city in a set amount of time, promising that if Willis completed the missions, an act of terrorism would be averted. 12 Rounds starts with that same premise and… umm… finishes by making a new movie out of it, basically.
John Cena is a lunkheaded cop (the lunkheaded part wasn’t in the script) who’s in the right place at the right time when the FBI is chasing an Irish terrorist played by Aidan Gillen, a.k.a. Tommy Carcetti from The Wire. Knowing that the FBI is filled with a bunch of book-learnin’ sissypantses, Cena and his partner (Tavon from The Shield!) jump into the chase. And what a rote chase it is: 12 Rounds takes 22 minutes to really get moving. We learn that Carcetti is, like, the world’s meanest terrorist, who would totally cut your dog’s throat if it meant he could get, like, an extra diamond or something. But somehow, our loveable rapping wrestler manages to corner Carcetti and his girlfriend. When things get heated, the terrorist’s girlfriend runs away, and WHAM—she gets run over by a truck and killed. Carcetti is, needless to say, very angry. He vows revenge on the cop who proved his girlfriend never learned to look left, right, then left again. But that doesn’t matter, because Carcetti is going to jail for a very long time.
Or is he? Somehow, Gillen escapes from whatever kind of jail is used to incarcerate skinny white terrorists, and he’s out for some revenge. The proper revenge, of course, would be to kill Cena’s wife and make him watch—end of story. But Gillen is that rare kind of terrorist who both loves his girlfriend enough to want to avenge her death, and is loony enough to set up a way-too-elaborate revenge plot. (If you don’t already sense that there’s going to be some sort of financial ulterior motive, you haven’t seen enough Die Hard movies yet, and you should probably start there.)
How many rounds will it take the superstar terrorist to knock out the wrestler? It’s right there in the title! The only problem is that the rounds aren’t all that interesting: Round one, Gillen blows up Cena’s house and kidnaps his wife. That’s it. That’s the whole round. Then he calls Cena and tells him the rules of this ridiculously elaborate, yet completely moronic game. Here’s Gillen—a.k.a. Shaggy Carcetti—letting Cena know what’s up, via cell phone.
From there, things get really saggy. 12 Rounds doesn’t have the horror chops to get into Saw or Seven territory, so its rounds are wasted on tasks that clearly would’ve taken Gillen years to set up. He sets a bank on fire and Cena has to get inside and get something out of a safety-deposit box. He rigs an elevator to crash to the ground with Cena and a fat security guard in it—knowing that Cena will only have enough time to save himself! Somehow, he’s watching all of this happen, though we see him in a hotel room (with Cena’s kidnapped wife), or out on the pier, or just generally having a grand old time.
Only one of the rounds actually provides much craptastic excitement: Gillen rigs a streetcar to increase its speed and crash, killing everybody onboard. Here’s where I’ve got to get into major spoiler territory, but believe me when I say that you don’t want to see this movie. (Not for its plot, anyway,) The omnipotent terrorist knows that if Cena is tasked with stopping this streetcar from crashing, he’s going to knock out its power. He probably knows that Cena will attempt to stop the streetcar by putting his cop car in front of it and applying the brakes, then climbing on top of the streetcar and almost falling off in an attempt to somehow stop it that way. And then, even though Cena nearly dies in six different ways, Gillen knows that Cena will figure out how to shut down the power for the whole area—by crashing his cop car into a conveniently located generator of some sort. Rather than show you the scene, I’d like to introduce you to the streetcar operator, who was presumably hired because his line readings were actually worse than Cena’s. Listen closely.
To give you an idea of what kind of acting superstars the streetcar man is up against, I’d like to present this intense emotional scene, which features the good guy, the bad guy, and the victim, each giving it their all.
Anyway, here’s that spoiler I promised: Somehow, a stone-dumb wrestler eventually figures out that the terrorist isn’t just out for revenge—each of these 12 rounds (except for the ones that conveniently don’t make sense—those are ignored) somehow advances his ultimate goal: breaking into some kind of bank and stealing $100 million in old, pulled-from-circulation currency. If the terrorist is a great admirer of Rube Goldberg devices, then he’s planned the perfect crime. His goal was to break into a place, steal a bunch of cash, and get away clean. He probably could have accomplished this with two rounds: stealing a security guard’s ID and stealing a fire truck. Instead, he brought John Cena—the only guy who ever caught him—into the picture, and introduced a ton of variables that all but assured he wouldn’t succeed. Maybe he’s just that crazy! Maybe the best way to get stolen money out of a bank that you yourself are simply going to walk out of is to dump it into the sewer, knowing that you’ll be able to easily suck it out with your stolen fire truck’s “reverse flow” function! (This really happens.) When you want to go to the bathroom, Mr. Terrorist, do you climb a ladder, pee into a shot glass, call your neighbor to drive it to the next town, follow him there on your skateboard, pick up the urine-filled shot glass, pour it in a public toilet, circle the building you’re in six times, then flush? No, you walk to the toilet, and you piss.
Of course, if he did that, there wouldn’t be room for a climactic final fight on board a helicopter that is inexplicably being piloted by Cena’s wife, who took the soaking-wet money into the hospital on a gurney inside body bags. (This is all true, too, I swear.) Inevitably, as the bad man is about to escape (to Tahiti!) on a MedEvac helicopter, Cena jumps from the building onto the chopper’s skids, and a vicious fistfight ensues. Because it’s a medical helicopter, the weapons at hand include a scalpel and a defibrillator. And when Carcetti nails Cena with the juiced-up paddles (which somehow get juiced up by falling on the ground), Cena makes a face that made this entire movie worth watching for me. It’s almost as if the director said, “Make the last face that anyone in the world would actually make when they’re on the receiving end of a defibrillator attack, while spinning around in a helicopter.” It’s a mix of pain, anger, confusion, and ACTING. I hope the video is big enough for you to enjoy it as much as I did.
Did I mention that there’s a ticking time bomb on this runaway helicopter? There is. And when Carcetti is finally incapacitated, Cena talks his wife into jumping an impossibly high distance into a rooftop pool. Before she does, though, she gets the last laugh at her tormentor’s expense: “You land it, bitch!” Ha! She really got him, and then he blew up.
How much of the experience wasn’t a total waste of time? Rather than try to figure out the mathematical equation for enjoying this movie, I’m going to give this space over to an Amazon reviewer, who eloquently said: “This movie is filled to the brim with action, suspense, and violence! It's like they took Speed, Die Hard, Saw, 24, Max Payne, and Midnight Madness and mixed them all together to make this movie! Danny Fisher is thrust into a deadly game a year after he arrested an arms dealer named Miles Jackson. Miles kidnaps his girlfriend, and gives Danny 12 things to do. He must solve terrible puzzles, race against time, make sacrifices to save Molly. I love when he drove around in the fire truck, because my dad used to be a Fireman, until he retired. Will Danny stop the bad guy, and save his girl? I highly recommend 12 ROUNDS!!!” (Okay, maybe not. I’d say 10 minutes, or about 9 percent.)