Sometimes expectations are everything when you watch a movie. I expected 12 Rounds to be pure crap, more or less, and because I had set my personal viewing bar so incredibly low, imagine my surprise when the film actually turned out to be, if not exactly a top candidate for an Oscar, at least a passably entertaining romp, with some adrenaline pumping action sequences, and an at least competent leading performance by WWE superstar John Cena. If 12 Rounds frequently ventures into pure absurdity and stretches credulity to the point where it not only snaps, but ricochets back and blinds you once or twice, it's a mindless exercise that at least delivers the goods in the stunt, explosions, and car crash departments, something that I expect its target demographic of adolescent boys will eat up.
Cena plays New Orleans cop Danny Fisher, who pretty much single-handedly manages to capture international arms smuggler Miles Jackson (Aidan Gillen, who walks away with this film, performance wise), despite Jackson being wanted on several Federal warrants and being tailed by a posse of largely incompetent FBI Agents, including a special agent (Steve Harris) who seems to have a personal vendetta for Jackson. Fisher's capture of Jackson leads to the death of Jackson's squeeze, and Jackson tells Fisher, "I won't forget you." Flash forward a year. Fisher has been promoted to Detective, and suddenly his world is thrown into disarray (as, frankly, is most of New Orleans by the time this film is over) when Jackson escapes, kidnaps Fisher's girlfriend Molly (Ashley Scott), and then sends Fisher on a wild goose chase of various tasks (the "rounds" of the film) to keep Molly alive.
Director Renny Harlin, certainly holder of one of the most impressively "manic depressive career" awards (if there were such a thing), brings his testosterone fueled vision to the project, and manages to pump up the action elements to a point where they're simultaneously hilarious but also bracingly visceral. Harlin, who seems to ping pong back and forth between gigantic worldwide blockbusters and incredibly massive flops of various shapes and sizes (hence the manic depressive award), nonetheless has always had a striking visual sense, and it's on full display throughout 12 Rounds. That said, it's a little disappointing when one of the most innovative visual approaches in the film is opening credits sequence.
This film is so filled with a sort of steroid driven approach that it makes "serious" critical analysis completely moot. You know going into a film like this you're not going to get any deep ruminations on the human condition, or indeed really any compelling performances (which is why Gillen's rather striking work here is so notable). So you're left with the action element, and 12 Rounds mostly delivers in that arena. Some of it is silly, to be sure--Cena madly driving a gigantic fire truck through various sections of New Orleans, basically demolishing everything in its path. Other sequences, such as a streetcar careening madly out of control when Jackson disables its brake, manage to be both intentionally funny (an FBI agent's frustrating attempts to get the power company to simply turn off the power, which is greeted by repeated "please holds") and well staged and at least passingly bracing. Attempts to build a little human interest, such as Cena's unsuccessful attempt to rescue a, shall we say, somewhat rotund security guard from an elevator that's about to plummet to ground just kind of lie there, if they don't actually elicit guffaws from some more jaded viewers.
When all is said and done, then, if you set the bar low enough, any film can at least partially pass muster. 12 Rounds has the same sort of manic energy that, say, Taken does, if none of its (admittedly slim) emotional impact. This is a film designed to boost the blood pressure and adrenalin levels of what I imagine are mostly adolescent males, and it should do that in spades. While the denoument devolves into absolute dreck (one of the worst staged sequences of Harlin's often impressive--and often lamentable--career), for the bulk of this film there are enough explosions and other diversions happening on screen to keep you from thinking too much about the manifold lapses in logic and gaping plot holes. If you have young boys in your household, or are a big kid yourself, you probably won't find a lot to complaint about in 12 Rounds. Of course you'll find virtually nothing to rave about either. It's all about expectations.