What, exactly, happened to Renny Harlin? How did he go from hotshot newbie with an entire career before him to a cinematic afterthought left to helm horrid hackjobs like The Covenant and Cleaner? After three films in Finland, the foreign visionary landed on our shores and immediately made his mark with the excellent convict creepshow Prison. In quick succession, he then delivered one of the best Nightmare on Elm Street sequels and the definitive Die Hard installment. But then came the craptacular Ford Fairlane, the attempted comeback of Cliffhanger, and one of the biggest of all box office bombs, the pale pirate movie Cutthroat Island. Such a cruel career rollercoaster is not unusual in Tinsel Town, but with solid follow-up features like The Long Kiss Goodnight and the silly shark romp Deep Blue Sea, one assumes a little artistic amnesty is long overdue.
Yet now here we sit, in 2009, with Harlin helming the latest Vince McMahon tax dodge, 12 Rounds. With star wrestler John Cena in the lead, a capable cast surrounding him, and a script by first timer Daniel Kunka, it would seem like the former A-lister is still doing time for some manner of motion picture crime. And that’s too bad - because this is actually a perfectly acceptable, quite accomplished action film. Sure, Harlin’s $1.50 budget shows through now and again, and the entire clockwork plot tends to implode around the 90 minute mark, but what remains is a perfect example of a rehabilitative resume builder. Still, the star vehicle stink for a less than noted athlete and the additional b-movie vibe will leave many thinking that, in terms of slumming, it’s the rest of the company that’s catering to Harlin’s dwindling reputation.
During an FBI sting of an Irish arms dealer named Miles Jackson, police officer Danny Fisher steps in and saves the day. Sadly, he also causes the accidental death of the criminal’s beloved gal pal. One year later, Jackson escapes from prison and kidnaps Fisher’s girlfriend. He intends to play a game, engaging the recently promoted detective to 12 rounds of cat and mouse comeuppance. Our hero must do everything the villain says or lose the chance of ever seeing his woman alive again. Luckily, Fisher has best friend Hank Carver and two nosy government agents, Aiken and Santiago along for the ride. All he has to do is complete Jackson’s tasks and he will avoid the vengeance the talented terrorist seeks. Of course, payback may not be the only thing Jackson is interested in. A big payday might be another.
With its wonderful post-Katrina NOLA setting and the standard stunt spectacle as only Harlin can deliver, 12 Rounds is actually quite good. It’s no masterpiece, but then again, few post-millennial adrenaline rushes have been. Instead, when viewed inside its maker’s inconsistent canon, it falls somewhere between Stallone’s rock climbing cheesiness and Bruce Willis’ airport bad-assery. Sure, there is a superficial quality to what it going on, a “don’t go over budget” border that Harlin never crosses, and the quality of talent both in front of and behind the lens leads to sequences that don’t really pay off like they should (the trolley chase, the helicopter finale). Yet with what he had to work with, and how he managed to maneuver and manipulate same, Harlin is clearly doing some definite work. It may not be enough to bolster him back into the big time, but it’s clearly a motion picture means of rebuilding his sodden celluloid character.
As for Cena, he doesn’t have to be good. He just has to show up, and he does so admirably. He lacks a certain magnetism that makes his obviously pumped up responses feel a little less than intimidating, and his devil may care attitude toward danger (one he clearly picked up in the ring) undermines the basic needs of an edge of your seat thriller. Still, he’s a lot better than many athletes turned ‘actors’ and along with The Marine, he shows real promise as a part-time steely man of action. As for his support, The Wire‘s Aiden Gillen is good, if not very menacing, as Jackson. He’s more of a ‘toy with his target’ kind of criminal than an outright horror. And Tyler Perry regulars Steve Harris and Brian J. White are amiable as African American lawmen with different agendas regarding the situation.
Granted, at 108 minutes (closer to 110 in the “extreme” Blu-ray cut), it’s overlong and under-stuffed. There’s not enough set-up with Cena and his babe before things go kinetic, and when we do see some attempt at flashback feeling, the movie steps in and dispenses with it pronto. There are times when we wish Harlin would pull out all the stops, when he would offer up the inventive, in your face sequences that characterized Die Hard 2 and The Long Kiss Goodnight. There’s also the lack of a truly memorable presence, someone like Samuel L. Jackson who can carry a set of sequences through on the strength of his star power personality only. Still, you can’t deny that this is an above-average effort from a man who, until now, has been chided as existing somewhere far below the favored Tinsel Town talent.
Perhaps this new Blu-ray release from Fox will help. The amazing image and sensational sound surely can’t hurt. This is one of the best looking and best sounding home video releases - especially when you consider the source. The movie is mastered in a 1080p MPEG-4 AVC transfer the captures the theatrical feel of this film flawlessly. There is an incredible amount of detail and a real scope to some of the sequences. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is also stellar, delivering the kind of sonic panache a picture like this requires. This is especially true of the numerous chase scenes. The speakers spark into overdrive as the vehicular mayhem travels around from channel to channel.
As for added content, Fox really delivers. Aside from the now mandatory digital copy of the film (on a separate disc), there are two excellent audio commentaries (one from Harlin, one from Kunka and Cena), a pair of alternate endings (minor, not mandatory), a trio of featurettes, including a Making-of and a look at the various stunt work involved, and a Cena gag reel. Toss in the two versions of the film (original and slightly longer edit), a pair of viral videos, and a look at the musical score (with composer Trevor Rabin), and you’ve got a solid, must own title - at least from a technical point of view.
And believe it or not, the movie’s not bad either. While it won’t win any awards (Oscar or Razzie) it certainly is a step up from the so-called thrillers making the direct-to-digital rounds nowadays. Maybe Harlin will finally get the reevaluation and respect he so richly deserves - all Jolly Roger ridiculousness aside. What’s clear is that, in a business which often rewards outright mediocrity as long as it doesn’t diddle with the bottom line, a movie like 12 Rounds will be a likely non-issue. It was not a big hit when it played in theaters and even those who usually champion anything the WWE does put this squarely in See No Evil territory. Actually, both commercial and critical evaluations are rather harsh. Just like its maker, 12 Rounds deserves reconsideration. Ignore the flaws and you’ll find a rather entertaining film - and filmmaker.