“The Marine” will trigger a strong sense of deja vu for anyone who recalls the slapdash, slam-bang action fare that was standard-issue drive-in fodder during the 1970s. Junky, jokey and sometimes both at once, pic marks yet another attempt by World Wrestling Entertainment to establish one of its burly superstars as a movie lead. In the title role, however, frosh thesp John Cena evidences little of the swaggering dynamism he has demonstrated while grappling — and, occasionally, rapping — in the ring. His retro star vehicle likely will beat a hasty retreat from megaplexes and forage for profits while invading vidstores in the not-so-distant future.
Opening scenes intro John Triton (Cena) as a gung-ho leatherneck on duty in Iraq. During a stealth assault on an Al Qaeda camp, he disobeys a directive to wait for support and single-handedly exterminates scores of enemy combatants while freeing some captured Marines. He’s a hero, of course, but that means little to his by-the-book commanders. For failing to follow orders, he’s discharged from the service and shipped back home to South Carolina.
Not surprisingly, scripters Michell Gallagher and Alan McElroy don’t give John much R&R time with Kate (Kelly Carlson), his curvy cutie of a wife. While the couple is en route to a camping vacation, Kate is abducted by trigger-happy jewel thieves who need the “insurance” of a hostage. Naturally, the bad guys don’t count on being pursued by a one-man commando team on a search-and-destroy mission.
Making his debut as a feature helmer, TV commercial vet John Bonito aims for wall-to-wall action spiked with tongue-in-cheek humor. But he tries too hard during scenes of hand-to-hand combat, which he overedits into blurry abstractions, and he’s much too fond of shooting characters in slo-mo as they casually walk (or desperately run) from cheesy-looking fiery explosions.
In sharp contrast to the R-rated ’70s actioners that are its obvious influence, “The Marine” is relatively subdued when it comes to rough stuff. There’s a purposeful cartoonishness to much of the mayhem — John continues a high-speed chase in a commandeered police car even as the baddies blast the vehicle apart — and a conspicuous avoidance of graphic violence. If Bonito wanted to ensure a PG-13 rating so he could reach the widest possible swath of the WWE fan base — well, mission accomplished.
As if to compensate for the stiffness of his leading man, Bonito has encouraged all manner of mugging, shrugging and wink-wink, nudge-nudging from the villains of the piece. As ringleader of the murderous fugitives, Robert Patrick steals every scene that isn’t bolted to the floor with his dry, deadpan delivery of wisecracks, putdowns and even expository dialogue. (Phoning a cohort, he sighs: “I think I can now add kidnapping to my list of atrocities.”) But Anthony Ray Parker gets even bigger laughs as a beefy black henchman who take great umbrage at real or imagined racial slights and reacts with amusing outrage when a cohort suggests a minivan as a getaway vehicle.
Exteriors shot in Australia double convincingly for South Carolina locales. (At least half of the storyline involves a long trek through swamp country.) Overall, though, “The Marine” looks like a production that placed great premium on the pinching of pennies and the cutting of corners.