It’s quite rude to theatrically release Freelance before the scent of sage burnt to blast bad juju from auditoriums showing Expend4bles has even cleared. Adding insult to injury, this misbegotten heap boasts an even more overpowering stench to expel. At least it has better visual effects.

Freelance will appeal only to those who would march into hell for its star, John Cena, and its content reflects the barren, scorched scenery such fans would discover there — a wasteland of the performer’s considerable potential for mugging, making jokes and mowing people down. Cena plays a Special Forces soldier turned lawyer named Mason Pettits. Yes, the last name is pronounced like the clothing size. Yes, someone comments that his name, in French, would be “little houses.” Sorry for spoiling one of perhaps four gags (a liberal estimate) throughout a purported action-comedy that plays like The Machine without a personality or a point.

After a helicopter crash kills half his team, Mason retreats to a humdrum existence he hoped to avoid. His wife (Alice Eve) is ready to leave. His daughter is punching classmates in the throat. His only client is a guy suing his cell phone company. There is a random bottle of barbecue sauce on a shelf in his home; for a movie that references Hannah Arendt’s musings on evil and power, this might be a very subtle jab at Mark Zuckerberg’s interview-background décor. Life is very tough for Little Houses. 

But then Mason’s old boss (Christian Slater, because why not Christian Slater) comes calling with a private security gig that will pay $20,000. It’s a “milk run” to escort disgraced journalist Claire Wellington (Alison Brie) for an interview with Juan Arturo Venegas (Juan Pablo Raba), the iron-fisted ruler of the fictitious South American nation Paldonia. Actual dialogue: “I’m trying to break into the personal protection racket for journalists, so I’m overpaying on this one.” 

Ah, but there’s a coup brewing in Paldonia. It’s related to restrictions Venegas wants to place on mining rights to lanthanites — rare earth metals that can power portable electronics and which no one seems to know existed in Paldonia until right now! A South African merc — who resembles Sideshow Bob with male pattern baldness and is played by Marton Csokas, the Dollar Tree version of Russell Crowe — is very mad about that. Thus, Claire, Venegas and Little Houses have to run through the jungle … somehow staying dry after going through deep rivers and finding time to dry-clean the grass stains from their nice threads.

At one point, Claire quips “Delta Force isn’t anything but a bad movie.” Not wrong, screenwriter Jacob Lentz, but it’s better than this! Mason tells her Paldonia is like a Tim Burton movie, “colorful but creepy as fuck.” Turns out Paldonia is just your garden-variety proxy for an actual place, presented with such disregard for a consistent tone of any kind that Venegas’s bit about a bulletproof suit is followed by a violent, teary farewell to a nephew who took a slug for him. Brie also mounts a horse backwards. Tee-hee. Whoops. Sorry. Did I go and spoil all those jokes?

Freelance seems like a fake movie within a movie that manifested into reality as the tax-shelter scheme for a bunch of fat-cat dolts with no better plan to pay the piper less. It’s almost impressive that a film rooted in how we are pawns of craven, globally corporate interests would feel so utterly disengaged from anything resembling a human response. “America does produce some wonderful culture, wouldn’t you agree?” Venegas asks after quoting The Godfather. It’s true. And John Cena is often a part of it. Just don’t look at how Freelance massacres your boy.