Published March 26, 2009
With several championships and a legion of fans across the globe, World Wrestling Entertainment star John Cena has established himself as a leading man in professional wrestling. But can he pin down the big screen?
Cena’s film, “12 Rounds,” could prove pivotal in showing whether he has what it takes to become Hollywood’s next action star when it opens nationwide on Friday. In the movie, Cena is Detective Danny Fisher, a blue-collar cop forced to play a sadistic game with a diabolical Irish terrorist named Miles Jackson to save his girlfriend. Jackson, played by Aidan Gillen (of HBO’s “The Wire”), is seeking vengeance against Fisher for putting him behind bars and playing a role in the accidental death of his own girlfriend.
“12 Rounds” is not “Casablanca”; don’t expect members of the Academy to come knocking on Cena's door. But if you’re an adrenaline-rush junkie, “12 Rounds” is your fix. It’s laden with car chases, explosions and mangled vehicles from beginning to end. And Cena thinks fans of good popcorn movies will be pleased.
“We’re not beating the wrestling drum,” he told FOXNEWS.com. “You get the feeling that Danny Fisher is just some regular dude willing to do whatever it takes to get his girl back.”
“12 Rounds” is the latest film produced by WWE Studios, the sports-entertainment company’s Los Angeles-based film and television division. It is the second movie WWE Studios has done with Cena, who made his big screen debut in 2006’s “The Marine.”
WWE hopes the 31-year-old West Newbury, Mass. native – who is perhaps the most recognizable face of the company inside and outside the squared circle - will become a staple of WWE Studios and achieve the mainstream notoriety that Hulk Hogan and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson have enjoyed. Cena, who grew up a diehard wrestling fan watching “The Hulkster,” is grateful for the opportunity and believes he had a chance to showcase more of his abilities in “12 Rounds” than he did in “The Marine.”
“I get to contribute a little bit more than I did in ‘The Marine,’” he said. “‘The Marine’ is something I got by accident – it came about literally overnight. I came in virtually with no experience, and WWE Studios did a good job of protecting me with the scripts, letting the other actors really carry the movie on their backs. I thank them for that, but at the same time I wanted to do more acting. ‘12 Rounds’ was written so that I could show anxiety, show failure – the wide range of emotions that I couldn’t show as John Triton, indestructible Marine.”
Cena is only one of several professional wrestlers to invade the big screen. Tinseltown has long recognized their star potential.
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson – who first rose to fame as a third-generation WWE wrestler – is now an established movie star with a few No. 1 opening movies under his belt. His latest, Disney’s “Race to Witch Mountain,” opened at No. 1 this month and has grossed more than $46 million domestically so far.
The 2005 remake of "The Longest Yard" was full of pro wrestlers. "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, Bill Goldberg, Dalip Singh (who wrestles in WWE as "The Great Khali") and Total Nonstop Action Wrestling's Kevin Nash starred opposite Adam Sandler, Chris Rock and Burt Reynolds.
The Mexican film industry recognized the star appeal of wrestlers back in the 1950s. Late legendary masked wrestler El Santo starred in 59 Mexican films during an in-ring career that lasted 48 years. The late Andre the Giant made several guest appearances in the 1970s as the bionic Bigfoot opposite Lee Majors in television's "The Six Million Dollar Man" and had a role in the 1987 movie "The Princess Bride." Former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura had several small roles in television and movies, most memorably fighting alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger in "Predator." And both wrestling and movie aficionados remember star turns by “Rowdy” Roddy Piper and former National Wrestling Champion Terry Funk in “They Live” and “Road House” respectively.
Still, wrestling charisma and fame have not always translated into box office success.
Though Hulk Hogan is arguably the world's most famous wrestler, he could never pin Hollywood to the mat. He had some success as a reality TV star, but his movies – such as "Suburban Commando" and "Mr. Nanny" in the early 1990s – were critically scorned and commercial flops. Not even “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, one of the most popular wrestlers of all time, was able to stun the movie audience in 2007 with his star role in WWE Studios’ “The Condemned,” which earned an anemic $8.6 million worldwide.
To this day, Johnson is the only pro wrestler to parlay his in-ring success into a full-time Hollywood career. Cena wants to conquer Hollywood, too. But he also remains committed to his WWE career.
“I will be full-time for them [WWE] as long as they have me,” Cena said. “I’m blazing my own path, showing the free world that you can balance both paths [pro wrestling and Hollywood]. And there’s an advantage to that: The WWE has a legion of loyal fans. If you have a good movie and they hear you have a good movie, then guess what? They’ll go out and see it. That’s a good ace to have in your back pocket.”
If it seems that Cena has a game plan, he does. Don’t expect him to take on westerns or comedies anytime soon. He is focused on filling a certain void in the Hollywood landscape.
“I’d like to stick with action for awhile. I know there is a void as far as the next action guy goes,” he said. “I know Jason Statham is doing a lot of good stuff and Matt Damon did a lot of good things with ‘Bourne’ series. But he goes off and does a lot of other different things. Even Dwayne Johnson did action for awhile and then did other dramatic things. I’ve seen as a fan that if you go off and do things other than the action genre, it’s more difficult for the consumer to buy you as an action hero.”
Above all else, Cena hopes fans will buy him as movie star. He plans to sneak into theaters on Friday and gauge the audience’s reaction to “12 Rounds.” And he admits there is really only one way to know whether “12 Rounds” goes the distance with moviegoers.
“It’s up to the ticket buyers," Cena said. "I know we have a great movie; I’m very proud of the product. But if it doesn’t show in the box office receipts, then you can’t say you have a success.”