12 Rounds (United States, 2009)

March 27, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
12 Rounds Poster

12 Rounds is the unholy stepchild of Die Hard with a Vengeance and Speed, starring a man whose lack of range makes Steven Seagal seem nuanced by comparison. John Cena is so wooden that one worries about his being in scenes with fire for fear that he'll catch a spark and burst into flame. And, because Renny Harlin has never been one to show restraint with pyrotechnics, there are plenty of big, impressive explosions: cars, houses, buildings. You name it, it blows up. Unfortunately, although the bangs are bright and colorful, everything else is drab and shabby. The only time I can recall New Orleans looking worse is during news footage in the Katrina aftermath. 12 Rounds is an embarrassment; it's no surprise it wasn't screened for critics.

When it comes to pure testosterone/adrenaline cocktails, it's almost unfair to penalize a movie for screenplay stupidity, since a preposterous storyline is often a prerequisite. There are three mandatory elements for a successful entry into this genre: intense, balls-to-the-wall action scenes that effectively distract viewers from plot deficiencies, likeable protagonists (preferably with "everyman" qualities), and diabolical villains. No action film better typifies these characteristics than the first Die Hard, which even today stands out as a template for this kind of motion picture. 12 Rounds, on the other hand, whiffs on all three counts. The premise might be adequate for a video game, but it's an utter failure for a non-interactive motion picture. Plus, the PG-13 rating robs the movie of the opportunity to keep viewers entertained with some old fashioned exploitation.

12 Rounds opens with a prologue in which New Orleans cop Danny Fisher (Cena) captures terrorist and arms dealer Miles Jackson (Aiden Gillen). Unfortunately, in the process, Jackson's girlfriend is killed. One year later, Jackson has escaped from prison and is out for revenge. He starts by blowing up Fisher's house then, for an encore, he captures the love of Fisher's life, Molly (Ashley Scott). Game on: Jackson has created a 12-round series of challenges that, if successfully completed, will result in a happy reunion. If Fisher fails, however, Molly will join Jackson's girlfriend in the sweet hereafter.

Arguably the most glaring flaw in 12 Rounds isn't that it would require Jackson to be an omniscient, omnipresent clairvoyant in order to set all of the traps, but that they're so uniformly mundane. Escape from an elevator before it plunges to the basement? Knock out the power so a runaway street car will stop? Climb stairs and get through some smoke to reach a safety deposit box? You'd think the filmmakers would at least come up with a compelling set piece or two. It doesn't help that the stakes are overinflated. I for one didn't care whether or not Jackson killed Molly and, for the most part (at least judging by Cena's inflexible expression), one has to wonder whether Fisher was upset about the possibility. He certainly shakes off his partner's unfortunate turn of events pretty quickly. Not to mention what happens to poor Willie.

I suppose Ashley Scott does a reasonable job. She doesn't flub any lines although she doesn't have a generous amount of dialogue. Then there's Aiden Gillen, whose Jackson was obviously influenced by Hans Gruber. Perhaps cognizant of this, Gillen does his best to channel the Die Hard villain, although the result is less successful than what one might expect from Alan Rickman on Prozac. Jackson is about as terrifying as Doogie Howser. Say what you will about The Last House on the Left - at least it accomplished the goal of making the villains repugnant. Here, the bad guy looks like someone who stumbled out of a frat party.

It's indicative of the direction in which Harlin's career has gone that 12 Rounds is being sold as being "from the creator of Die Hard 2." That's probably a better hook than "from the creator of Mindhunters" or "from the creator of Cutthroat Island." Screenwriter Daniel Kunka has no other credits on his IMDb resume, which causes me to wonder whether this is a pseudonym for Harlin's pet goldfish. At least that's about the level of writing delivered by this movie. There's an art to making dumb action films enjoyable and the cast and crew of 12 Rounds haven't figured it out. Movie-goers out for a little painless entertainment are notoriously forgiving of lame material as long as there's some sort of payoff. Keeping that in mind, one would have to be a candidate for sainthood to forgive the men and women responsible for 12 Rounds.

12 Rounds (United States, 2009)

Director: Renny Harlin
Cast: John Cena, Aiden Gillen, Ashley Scott, Steve Harris, Brian J. White, Gonzalo Menendez
Screenplay: Daniel Kunka
Cinematography: David Boyd
Music: Trevor Rabin
U.S. Distributor: Fox Atomic
Run Time: 1:45
U.S. Release Date: 2009-03-27
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1