With the proper alignment of talent, the cliché of a brawny thug with a heart of gold becomes an irreverent and heartwarming combination in films like Norwegian deadpan comedy "A Somewhat Gentle Man" and Darren Aronofsky's "The Wrestler." While "The Chaperone" bests those works by starring a real wrestler, it falls short on every other count. Flatly directed by Stephen Herek from a screenplay by S.J. Roth, the movie seems to be at peace with its mediocrity. As a vehicle for WWE champ Paul "Triple H" Levesque, it's haplessly stuck on cruise control.
A weakly sentimental kid's story with a few grown-up gags, "The Chaperone" stars Levesque as reformed bank robber Ray Bradstone, whose seven years behind bars come to a close in the opening minutes. Despite remnants of his badass past in his hefty build and stern demeanor, Ray leaves jail citing Einstein and Sun Tzu, reading self-discovery texts and calling into a radio show to discuss his personal developments. Hoping to make good with his pissy ex-wife Lynn (Annabeth Gish) and middle school-age daughter Sally (Ariel Winter), he shows up at their home and faces prompt rejection.
After a brief incursion with with a group of former criminal pals headed by the feisty Philip (Kevin Corrigan), Ray nearly joins them in a bank heist before choosing to join his hostile daughter on a museum field trip at the last minute. Accidentally bringing the loot with him, Ray has to contend with cops and robbers on his tail, not to mention his daughter's icy looks. As the museum field trip gets underway, pandemonium ensues with one formulaic indulgence after another.
"The Chaperone" is the latest from WWE Studios, the production arm of the wrestling empire that funnels WWE brand names like John Cena ("12 Rounds") and Adam "Edge" Copeland ("Bending the Rules") into ancillary markets. Good for the brand; bad news for viewers who make VOD choices based on genre and familiar faces.
Plot-wise, "The Chaperone" owes much to Arnold Schwarzenegger's "Kindergarden Cop," considering how both movies feature musclemen barking at bewildered adolescents. In "Kindergarden Cop," however, the farcical image of an action hero belting "shut up!" to a roomful of five-year-olds held an inspired absurdity. Levesque also gets his big "shut up" moment, unleashing his fury on his daughter's restless classmates during a bus ride to the museum. But the line falls flat, as most of them do, thanks to the eternally listless expression on Bradstone's face. It just sits there, as though he's waiting for the referee to walk through the scene and call cut. As one of Sally's classmates observes, in a moment of presumably accidental self-critical screenwriting, "It's like a bad episode of 'Nanny 911.'"
At least that show plays up its inherently silly premise. "The Chaperone," on the other hand, sticks to a series of familiar twists that culminate with a showdown between Ray and Phillip while the cut-and-paste orchestral score crescendos. When Ray stares down the gun barrel of his former pal and insists he has the wrong idea, Philip fights back. "Don't insult my intelligence!" he barks. The maniac speaks for all of us.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? It won't make much of a dent in limited release this weekend, but should do solid enough on VOD to sustain the current WWE model. For now. Samuel Goldwyn serves as WWE's theatrical distribution partner, which is partly why the movie has a shot at finding any viewers at all.
criticWIRE grade: C-