Compared to yesteryear, WWE has done a good job at not smothering us every ten minutes about their latest release from WWE Films. Lord knows everyone got tired of Randy Orton threatening, “I’ll go to the papers if I have to!” after they played that That’s What I Am commercial a billion times. I volunteered to give their newest attempt, Christmas Bounty, a look. I have a soft spot for Christmas movies, so I figure that might make it more forgivable. Plus it stars Mike “the Miz” Mizanin and I admittedly find the guy pretty entertaining. Sure, he’s floundered for the past couple years after he and R-Truth were fed to John Cena and the Rock and treated as afterthoughts, but he’s done a lot of great stuff in his career. His original Cena feud where he kept bragging about winning by forfeit as if it made him a huge legend? His partnership with John Morrison and all the internet videos they made together? The way his winning of the WWE Championship caused a little girl in the crowd to become so mad that it appeared she was possessed by a demon? All gold.
I wasn’t expecting much when looking towards Christmas Bounty’s debut on ABC Family, but at least it would be better than the Big Show comedy vehicle Knucklehead. Right? I was watching the latest Monday Night Raw and I wasn’t so sure. They promoted the movie with a clip and there didn’t appear to be anything resembling humor in there. It seemed like it was supposed to be funny, but there was nothing that came close to making me crack a smile. This is what they were leading with? Hoo boy.
The plot of Christmas Bounty is Tory Bell (Francia Raisa) is a schoolteacher in Manhattan, where she’s in a relationship with rich and genuinely good guy James (Will Greenberg), but has been keeping her past life a secret. It turns out she has some action skills and uses them behind his back, like Peter Parker sneaking off to be Spider-Man. She gets a phone call from mobster Manucci (Aleks Paunovic) and finds out he’s out of prison and looking for revenge. She returns to her home in Trenton, New Jersey and we find out that she and her entire family are bounty hunters and she’s the one responsible for putting Manucci behind bars in the first place. They also work along with her ex-boyfriend Mikey Muscles (the Miz), who acts smug and flirty at Tory in response to her return home. Then James follows her to Trenton and things get awkward.
Before I forget, I should note that the very first scene is James teaching Tory how to use an app on her phone, so you can tell this really is a WWE production.
The Manucci part of the plot is kind of hilarious…in a bad way. The setup is pretty sound in terms of concept, but the movie paints it so terribly. All the dialogue talks about how Manucci is out of prison and what we’re meant to understand is that he escaped prison, making him wanted by the authorities by default. Until the last five minutes, there’s really no indication of this, especially since convicted mobsters in these situations tend to get out of prison via good behavior, parole, ratting someone out, exploiting corrupt officials, etc. When a mafia guy gets out, most of the time it’s because they’re allowed to leave in a legal capacity, even if done through underhanded means. That makes it come off as really silly when Tory’s mother (April Telek) and father (Michael Hanus) decide that they’ll just arrest Manucci again. FOR GOOD THIS TIME! I spent nearly the entire movie wondering what exactly they’d bring him in on because up until the end, it seems like nothing more than a Cape Fear situation.
I could probably go into the improbability of bounty hunters going after the one type of criminal that’s really good about not having warrants out for their arrest, but this is an ABC Family production and I’d be overthinking it.
What’s extra annoying is that there are moments where the story seems to be going in the right direction, only to grind to a halt. For instance, about a third of the way in, right as everything’s really starting to drag, they toss in a fairly decent action sequence with a shootout and James shows up in the middle of it in a way that’s unexpected, but understandable. The sense of danger from having bounty hunters and the mafia go at it causes him to faint. You would think that James would be introduced to the idea that Tory’s a bounty hunter and the rest of the movie would be his reaction to this revelation as a fish out of water. That could have made the movie more bearable, but instead, he wakes up with no idea and they spend a good chunk of the story with Tory and her family hiding the truth like a bad sitcom plot. James stops being a character and becomes more of a nuisance.
Speaking of James, one interesting thing going on in the movie – and I still can’t believe I’m saying this – is that the Tory/James/Mikey love triangle is a complete copy of Casablanca. I’m not kidding. While Tory is far more of a protagonist than Ilsa, Mikey is easily Rick in that he’s a rough-around-the-edges ex-boyfriend with a chip on his shoulder over the way Tory up and left him with no explanation. That leaves James as Victor, who isn’t nearly as cool as Mikey, but is still portrayed as an understanding and ultimately decent guy, even when he doesn’t have to be. Shoving such a classic dynamic into an underwhelming, goofball Christmas vehicle is itself kind of interesting and isn’t the worst idea. Too bad they completely change one of the best and most defining parts of Casablanca’s story because of course they do.
As easy as it would be to harp on a wrestler having such a major role in a movie, the Miz is easily the highlight. Granted, there are plenty of times where he acts more smarmy and smirky when he’s supposed to be openly disgruntled (and yes, he does do the, “Really?” routine at one point), but he’s easily the closest thing Christmas Bounty has to a competent actor and he never seems out of place in all of his action sequences. Francia Raisa is wooden, Will Greenberg is just kind of there for most of his performance and everyone else is trying to see who can play the loudest, most obnoxious New Jersey caricature. The winner of that contest is Liz the Legs (April Telek), who is introduced in what seems like an acceptable one-off gag that moves the story forward, only a few minutes later they treat her as a serious part of the plot despite her over-the-top Jersey accent that makes her seem like something out of Saturday Night Live.
Outside of Miz, the best performance would easily be Aleks Paunovic as Manucci, who brings forth a likeable, if generic, mafia boss villain. The fact that he’s built like a brick house adds to the charm and gives him a naturally intimidating presence that the writing itself never truly lends itself to. You would think that as the huge bad guy, he’d get into some kind of big brawl with Mikey Muscles at some point, but the two rarely, if ever, share screentime. Instead, he gets into a handful of fights with Tory, who is half his size. I’m rather surprised that they even show him landing a couple blows on her, but that finally explained to me why the whole thing kept flashing the TV-14 rating.
Well, that and the occasional joke about Tory’s mother’s gigantic cleavage.
The climax has to do with the wedding of Manucci’s sister Big Donna (Sidika Larbes), which leads to the one gag in the whole movie that I found genuinely clever. Since there are so many mobsters in attendance, there’s a shot of them lined up and handing their guns over to a coat check woman who would place each handgun onto a hook while giving them a ticket for later. Inexplicably, they replay the exact shot later to really drive home the concept for the sake of plot. The same guy hands over his gun, which is placed on the same hook.
Now that I think about it, Big Donna’s groom is not only never shown, but he’s never even alluded to in any way. That’s kind of weird.
Christmas Bounty isn’t very good. Is it worse than Knucklehead? I’m not really sure, as I’ve repressed most of my memories of that movie. It doesn’t feature a big, fat guy having diarrhea on a bus, so it has that going for it, but there aren’t many reasons to even give it a look. It isn’t funny, the script looks like it could have used another couple of rewrites, most of the actors are too obnoxious to stand and even the action is affected by the, “You’re watching ABC Family! Somebody just got shot, but this sure is wacky!” sound effects and direction. All that and there’s very little reason for it to even be a Christmas movie in the first place. The whole thing just makes me feel like this.
Hey, is it spoilers if I tell you that it ends with a dance sequence that has nothing to do with anything? Because it totally does and it’s totally dumb.