Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Review: Freelance

John Cena plays John Cena and I found that enjoyable

John Cena is a wrestler, and a meme, and perhaps a walking assemblage of potato salad. I remember my classmates in fourth grade being obsessed with him, although I never was into wrestling. I do remember being impressed with him in The Suicide Squad, which was a rather odd film, albeit an enjoyable one. It was him alone, really, that made me want to see 2023’s Freelance in theaters, directed by Pierre Morel and also starring Alison Brie and Juan Pablo Raba.

The best comparison I have for Freelance is The Hitman’s Bodyguard, that zany action-comedy from a few years back featuring Samuel L. Jackson and Ryan Reynolds being Samuel L. Jackson and Ryan Reynolds. The latter as a film is very much a buddy movie with a good deal of heart under all the killing, with a sadistic streak to it. Freelance isn’t quite that, but it has its own emotional core, plenty of humor, and a star that the whole film is clearly banking on.

John Cena plays a former US Army special forces operative who was honorably discharged after an injury in combat. He returns to America, marries, has a daughter, and becomes a lawyer helping the downtrodden. Despite the stability and love from his family, he misses the action and the camaraderie of the Army, and yearns for more excitement; this begins to cause problems in his marriage. One day, an old Army buddy walks into his law office, offering him one last job in a Latin American country teetering on the edge of stability. Cena, unsurprisingly, accepts. His job is to provide security for a journalist (Alison Brie) who is the first journalist in decades to interview the country’s reclusive dictator (Juan Pablo Raba). This looks to be a pleasant, simple, quiet job, but this all changes when the dictator’s nephew mounts a military coup against him, announcing this with a hail of bullets in the vehicle carrying the three of them.

I found myself liking Cena in this movie a lot. There’s something very funny to me about how a man with such brawn, such clear strength, is at first relegated to the dull and tedious life of a lawyer; it feels like something out of an old comedy. When the action kicks in, he is very much in his element, and he has the fortune of delivering several great lines. I like, too, his softness, with his daughter and his wife, but also with the people he’s stranded with in this jungle. He has a willingness to try to understand people, even people he has every reason to hate (and oh boy, does he meet such people), and perhaps see something else in them. In a genre dominated by protagonists who are set in their convictions and their opinions, there’s something refreshing about that.

Alison Brie does a very good job as the intrepid reporter sent to a dictatorship for a scoop. Her character is coming off of some professional tragedy in this film, and she is eager to prove herself, to clear her name. Her character is also the conduit for one of the more clever ways I’ve seen in movies of addressing the omnipresence of smartphones in modern life. You think, for a second, that they’ll do another lazy trope of a vain woman always taking selfies, but no - she’s recording the action on her phone, in hopes of a big scoop. It felt real to me, in a world where wars are now playing out in the palms of our hands.

Juan Pablo Raba rounds out the leading trio, playing the dictator of this small, resource-rich fictional Latin American country that feels too far from God but too close to world financial markets. He strikes the right balance between loathsome, as dictators always are, and charismatic, as they also often are; they never would have risen to power without it. He’s Hugo Chavez adapted to the norms of Hollywood, or perhaps a snarkier, funnier Lazaro Cardenas. He has all the vices of these dictators, to the point that he can verge on the stereotypical, but Raba brings enough charm to the role that he is enjoyable in it.

Freelance uses a trope that I don’t particularly like: fictional countries that are clearly in a real region. To me, someone who has spent much time trying to learn about the world, it comes off as the writers being too lazy to research a real country. It is the film’s portrayal of Latin America where, in my estimation, it really stumbles. This country felt Central American, or maybe northern South American, the sort of place the CIA would have overthrown a democratic government in the name of stopping Communism but in reality at the behest of the United Fruit Company. The politics is suitably chaotic, with a ruling family that is at each other’s necks. I am not the hugest fan of how the film portrays the opposition, which feels somewhat cliche (this is redeemed somewhat by the participation of the opposition in one of the film’s most entertaining scenes), but it did some interesting things with the military, and how some of its soldiers are more than simple automata obeying their orders. With some more spit and polish, it could have said something interesting about how no ruler rules alone, but the script didn’t bother to venture there. There’s a real attempt to depict the diversity of this place, unreal as it may be. Overall, I’m certain those with more familiarity with Latin America could drive a truck through the gaps in the region’s portrayal, but to my gringo mind, at least, it wasn’t the worst.

This is a film that, in its concerns, strikes me as distinctly middle-aged, reminding me of Olympus Has Fallen and its sequels. The characters here are well into their careers, all with regrets, all having to see their professional identities challenged in some way. One wants the excitement and purpose of his youth, one wants a restoration of her credibility, and one has to find out his fate when his people seem to have had enough of him. There’s a clever thematic spine here that is easy to miss. When should we give up our youthful dreams and accept reality? It’s a hard question. It also figures in Cena’s character’s personal life. His marriage is on the rocks, and this affects his interactions with Brie’s character in a telling way, a way that underlines his innate kindness.

There’s also something to be said as to how the film portrays masculinity and its intersection with American military culture. I had the luck of reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s essay collection No Time to Spare recently, and she muses about traditional male friendships, the intense camaraderie they can foster, and the undercurrent of violence that so often underlies them. I thought the film could be read in dialogue with Le Guin on that score, and it enhanced the experience.

It was not until I wrote this review that I learned that this film has a 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes; it makes me question my taste, and fear that I’ll have my critic card revoked. In any case, it was a pleasant enough way to spend an evening before going to dinner. It doesn’t reinvent action cinema by any stretch, but I enjoyed it for what it was. Form your own judgment of it, if you’re so inclined.


Highlights: Cena's character

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10

POSTED BY: Alex Wallace, alternate history buff who reads more than is healthy.