WWE superstar John Cena has a freakishly square head, the ’roided-out physique of the Incredible Hulk, a stiff monotone, and exactly one mode as an actor, a furrowed-brow look of grim concentration. So it’s no surprise that his film vehicles, 2006’s The Marine and now 12 Rounds, compensate for his negligible acting talent and dearth of charisma by putting him in the middle of brain-clouding orgies of over-the-top spectacle. 12 Rounds sends its star racing around New Orleans dodging explosions, saving out-of-control trolley cars, narrowly averting death by escaping a plummeting elevator, leaping off buildings, and generally behaving like Superman’s more physically accomplished brother. Cena is luckily never called upon to express an emotion more complicated than, well, a furrowed-brow look of grim concentration.
In a plot that shamelessly cribs from Speed, Crank, the Saw series, and dozens of other gimmicky thrillers—it needs only a phone-loving villain to quip “Pop quiz, hotshot!”—Cena plays a cop who’s promoted to detective after he apprehends an evil genius played by The Wire’s Aidan Gillen. Gillen’s girlfriend dies for reasons related to his capture, so when he escapes from prison, he decides to make Cena pay in turn by kidnapping Cena’s girlfriend and threatening to kill her unless Cena solves vexing riddles, motors around the city at a breakneck speed, and performs a series of dangerous stunts. Yes, Cena must destroy half the city as collateral damage to keep Gillen from destroying it entirely. Gillen essentially sends his arch-nemesis on the world’s most dangerous scavenger hunt.
There’s something strangely charming about films that are all artifice, explosions, and naked calculation. 12 Rounds is at least honest trash: Itnever pretends to be anything other than manic schlock. Like Mindhunters, it’s directed with considerable craft by former A-list action auteur Renny Harlin, who does a bang-up job of orchestrating explosions and fights. Also like Mindhunters, it’s so relentlessly convoluted that it skirts self-parody. It would be overly generous to call Harlin’s work on this agreeably preposterous, more-than-passable time-waster a triumph of craft, so let’s just call it a superior feat of hackdom.