Renny Harlin is a far more interesting case than his resume would let on. Born in Finland, he came to Hollywood around the same time as fellow European popcorn-pic artisan Paul Verhoeven, and… well, I’m gonna come right out and say it: he’s Verhoeven minus the double-edged ironic gamesmanship. Verhoeven’s modus operandi is intentional envelope-pushing, sex and violence inflated to ridiculous levels so as to make implicit points about cultural decadence; he’s giving us the films that market research says we want and then asking us if that’s really what we want. Of course, he also does this because he’s a perverse son-of-a-bitch. Harlin follows similar impulses, but only because he’s a perverse son-of-a-bitch. He’s not one for satire or irony; if he gives cartoonishly overblown violence its due, it’s only because he loves cartoonishly overblown violence. Harlin’s films are generally dependent on the balance he strikes between his talent for the blissfully moronic and his weakness for hyperbolic sadism. When he’s got the balance just right and working on all cylinders, he turns out joyful crap like Deep Blue Sea, The Long Kiss Goodnight and Mindhunters, films that are indefensible as art but scratch the itch some of us out there (myself included) have for breezy, illogical cheeseball cinema where things blow up but good and people get splattered in various interesting ways. If Harlin forgoes the grinning lightness, the result is something horrid like his unwatchably ugly Exorcist flick; too little of the grue, on the other hand, gets us crass, hopelessly dumb films like Cutthroat Island where there’s lots of bluster and noise but little payoff.
By that token, 12 Rounds should be pretty terrible. After all, it’s saddled with a PG-13, which means that there’ll be no people being bitten in half by sharks or messily impaled on stalactites or sucked into jet engines. Plus, John Cena. That’s what assuming will get you: While hardly a quality product, 12 Rounds is a fairly enjoyable way to blow a mindless 90 minutes. Maybe The Marine (which I missed) revealed this already, but it turns out that Cena’s a likable screen presence. He exudes white-hat amiability and showcases an easy smile - basically, he’s the action hero as big friendly galoot, which makes it easy to root for him when it comes time for him to start kicking ass. And while Harlin can’t go for broke on the violence front, an early death-by-truck shows he’s willing to push that PG-13 as far as he can. Once you get past the setup, 12 Rounds is all about propulsion, and Harlin’s main job is to keep the film running at breakneck pace so that we can’t stop and notice the flaws; certain extra-stupid screenplay elements (read: damn near the entirety of Steve Harris’s role as a bullheaded FBI agent) refuse to be blown past, but for the most part Harlin does his job admirably on this front. If you’re looking for meaningful cinema, important cinema, cinema that illuminates the human condition, you’d do best to move on past. But if you’re looking to see a muscle-bound meathead plow a fire truck through half of downtown New Orleans, boy have I a film for you.