John Cena in '12 Rounds' (Fox Atomic)

Poor New Orleans! As if the real-life horrors of Hurricane Katrina and the broken levees weren't bad enough, now the beautiful city must suffer from the devastation wrought by Danny Fisher, played by former * WWE wrestler / entertainer John Cena in 12 Rounds, the latest train wreck from director Renny Harlin. "Damn the property damage! I'm going to save my girlfriend, whatever the cost!" is a noble sentiment, especially when you don't have to pay the bills.

Danny isn't really responsible for the carnage he causes, of course, even though he politely apologizes whenever he crashes into other people's vehicles or accidentally kills people. (Cena furrows his brow and turns his smile upside down, just so you know he's not happy with himself.) The real blame lies with Miles Jackson, who is seeking revenge on Danny for the death of his girlfriend. Jackson is described as an international arms dealer, but he spends much more time blowing things up and changing SIM cards in cell phones than any actual dealing of arms.

Aidan Gillen, who was superb as a cagey, ambitious, well-intentioned politician in The Wire, has much less to play with here, but it's fun to watch him try to juice up the role of an exceptionally-nasty master criminal with absolutely no scruples or second thoughts. He provides one of the few true pleasures in 12 Rounds, which should be a lot more fun than it is. Instead of embracing its loonier plot elements -- a fire engine crashing across town, a ticking time bomb on a public bus, an out-of-control street car -- 12 Rounds insists on playing it straight as a sober drama, ending up as Speed without the flirtations or thrills.



Come to think of it, the basic plot of 12 Rounds is reminiscent of Speed as well. The FBI blows a sting operation in which they hoped to capture Jackson, but Officer Danny Fisher foils his getaway. Jackson's girlfriend is run over by a passing car while trying to escape; Jackson blames Fisher, and vows revenge.

The opening scenes establish several conflicts, and I'm not just referring to the main narrative one between Fisher and Jackson. The style of the movie is glammed down to more closely approximate a documentary, with handheld camera work whipping around to follow the action. The color palette utilized by cinematographer David Boyd, a TV veteran (Friday Night Lights, Without a Trace, Firefly), is drained, not quite monochromatic, but certainly not the neon garish look commonly associated with films set in New Orleans. The bulk of the story takes place over a short period of time in the late afternoon and early evening, which might explain the look in part. Taken as a visual whole, however, it leads one to expect a gritty cop tale.

12 Rounds is anything but gritty, though. None of the action sequences would be out of place in one of the more outlandish action movies of the 80s and 90s, especially the ones starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, or Bruce Willis. John Cena looks like the bastard offspring of Schwarzenegger and Stallone, with the muscle and brawn yet without any discernible sense of humor or ability to dispense wisecracks.

Of course, the script, credited to first-timer Daniel Kunka, doesn't really have any wisecracks, witty dialogue, or self-conscious asides to let the audience know that the movie's in on the joke that the action on screen is too unbelievable to take seriously. Rather than "I'll be back," "Mission...accomplished," or "Yippie-ki-yay," all Cena gets as his tag line is "Sorry!" The worst insult anyone can hurl is "Bitch!"

The action sequences, in and of themselves, are as well-constructed and as nonthreatening as any you'll find in a PG-13 rated movie. Still, it's nice to see a hero who doesn't hesitate about driving in front of a speeding street car, slamming on the brakes, punching out the windshield, climbing over the roof of his automobile into the street car, smashing out that windshield, climbing on top of the still-speeding street car to try to cut the power, and then clambering back into his automobile so he can crash into a conveniently-located power station to save everyone. You don't see that every day!

Hmm, I've lost track of the point I started to make three paragraphs ago, but the jist of it is that I think the film would have worked much better as a full-tilt, cartoon-style b-movie, rather than the somber affair that unfolds in something like real time. We have too much opportunity to contemplate plot holes, inconsistencies, and irritations. Why, for example, is FBI Special Agent George Aiken (Steve Harris) so unaccountably arrogant? He blew the sting operation, yet somehow returns a year later still leading the task force charged with apprehending Jackson? His partner, Santiago (Gonzalo Menendez), looks and acts like a saint by comparison.

Fisher and his partner were instantly promoted to the rank of detective because they caught Jackson, but why do they never check in with their superiors? It seems like both have carte blanche to do whatever they want to do. And why does Ashley Scott keep getting stuck as the love interest of former wrestlers? First it was Dwayne Johnson's ex-girlfriend in Walking Tall, and now here she is again, playing Fisher's long-suffering girlfriend.

Let's return to the opening scenes for a moment, so as not to give anything else away for those who still wish to check it out for themselves. By a couple of lucky breaks, Officer Fisher and his partner, Officer Hank Carver (Brian White), stop the car that Jackson's girlfriend is driving. Shots are fired and the car speeds away. Carver is shot; he's OK, but he yells at Fisher: "Wait for backup! Don't be a cowboy!"

In that instant, we know what's going to happen.

We know Fisher won't wait for backup; he's a police officer, damn it, and it's his job to stop criminals, even if his partner is bleeding on the ground and his police cruiser is inoperable. Fisher lights out on foot, and somehow manages to keep up with the speeding getaway car, even though he's running and they're driving. I guess the explanation is supposed to be that he knows the neighborhood he patrols like the back of his hand and therefore knows all the shortcuts, including running through someone's house while the kids are watching TV. In any event, he manages to outrun the car to a bridge -- their only means of escape from the city -- and arrives ahead of them in time to push a big boat in their way.

He pushes a big boat ... you see what I mean? This should be a great, crazed action flick, the kind that director Renny Harlin made in his heyday. During the 90s, he crafted three very entertaining thrillers (Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger, The Long Kiss Goodnight) along with the fun, kitschy Deep Blue Sea, and before that he made one of the better horror sequels in A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master. The new century, unfortunately, has not been kind to him. Driven had some great driving sequences, but not much else; Mindhunters was a disappointing wash; Exorcist: The Beginning was probably doomed from the start; and The Covenant was a soul-less and scare-less, nothing more than a glossy commercial for pretty boy actors.

Clearly, Harlin is a director who needs good material to work with, and I hope he gets that opportunity in the future. For now, we have 12 Rounds, which is not quite nothing, but not quite something distinctive or memorable, either.

* UPDATED. Thanks to the commenters who noted that John Cena continues as a WWE wrestler. My apologies for the error.