What do we talk about when we talk about John Cena?
As it so often happens with wrestlers, this all depends on the angle. John Cena is very likely the most culturally-resonant name on the current World Wrestling Entertainment active roster, and certainly the most popular pro wrestler alive full-stop after Hulk Hogan. In the post-Hogan wrestling world we live in (and it’s crazy to think that such a thing exists considering Hogan’s importance to the industry), it’s only fitting that Cena be its public face. While Hogan renounced his sports-entertainment godhood by committing the vilest of sins, Cena is practically still untouched in his squared-circle holiness. He is virtuous to a fault, he fist-bumps sick kids at ringside, his god damn catchphrase is “hustle, loyalty, respect.” There’s a reason why kids idolize him and adults boo him: in an era where the line between good guys and bad guys gets blurred to the point of irrelevance, he’s an unabashed, full-on Good Guy. He’s a Nietzschian ubermensch in jorts, indistinguishable from a Saturday morning cartoon superhero, complete with unshakable moral acuity and catchy theme song. John Cena is the fucking Pope of Wrestling.
So what the hell does this have to do with the 2009 Renny Harlin jam 12 Rounds? Metatext. Some performers are very difficult to parse from their roles. This varies from person to person, and performer to performer; for example, I can’t unsee the social construct of Tom Cruise when I see Ethan Hunt. With John Cena, it becomes a little more complex. His performance, like so many other transplants from non-movie environments, lives and dies on how he can either parlay or play off his existing cultural cache. So in twisty little bit of conceptual performance, both John Cena and “John Cena” are playing a cop in this movie that might as well be named John Cena. In fact, this movie is so goofy and preposterous that had John Cena’s character been named John Cena, it wouldn’t have changed a thing. John Cena jumping off of buildings and stopping runaway trams with a car? Just another bump, whatever, this dude is practically Superman. But this whole movie betrays Cena’s second-biggest skill: his all-consuming milquetoast averageness. Cena ultimately succeeds at playing this dude because his character, in wrestling and in this film, is just an outsized version of that one loud but harmless fratty dude you went to high school with who listened to The Slim Shady LP a lot and whose ambitions topped out at being a low-level cop.
12 Rounds is a deeply silly, deeply flawed film, but as with many films of its ilk, it clears the bar of watchablilty thanks to the twin saving graces of briskness and unpretentiousness. Over the course of his decades-long American career, Harlin has mastered a very specific kind of lithe, kinetic dopiness that many European directors brought to American multiplexes in the early-90s. That said, he doesn’t have the satirical bite of Paul Verhoeven or the maximalist iconography of Roland Emmerich: just compare Basic Instinct and Universal Soldier to Cliffhanger. But as a whip-fast cheap thrill delivery device, 12 Rounds works wonders. Cena, charismatic performer that he is, doesn’t have a problem with being an action hero. But as far as performances are concerned, the MVP is Aidan Gillen, who chews scenery in his native accent as if his life depended on it. And overall, while it consistently favours barreling suspense over clarity or tone, it works because it’s just constantly happening at you. This is a dopey actioner, not a god damn Jacques Deray film, and it has enough preposterous twists and good old-fashioned action-movie incident to keep a more-or-less discerning cinephile like myself hooked for an hour and a half.
Now good luck on getting that theme song out of your head.