John Cena is a wrestler, actor and, as of this week, a groveller.
But before we get to his mea culpa, let’s start with his alleged crime. During a recent interview to promote “F9,” the latest chapter in the “Fast & Furious” franchise, Cena casually noted Taiwan would be the “first country” to see the action movie. Yeah? And? Exactly.
But that C-word ignited a fury in China: Did this American muscle head who plays Vin Diesel’s estranged brother in a film in which muscle cars jump over plot holes just recognize the sovereignty of Taiwan? Is he telling China that Taiwan is its own … COUNTRY?
Suddenly realizing he had skidded into a geopolitical minefield, Cena tried to throw his Ford Mustang GT350 into reverse. I haven’t seen this much high-speed backtracking since Jimmy Fallon condemned Jimmy Fallon for an old blackface sketch.
In a video he posted to Weibo, the Chinese social media app, Cena apologized profusely for his “mistake,” which he did not specify. Best to not repeat the C-word. Speaking in Mandarin, a language he took up years ago to, cough, help the WWE make inroads in China, Cena made it sound like this was an innocent slip of the tongue, a silly gaffe brought on by too many “interviews” and too much “information” from publicists.
Did I just say basketball was a sport? I’m sorry, what on earth was I thinking!
His main message: “I love and respect China and the Chinese people.”
Then he repeated how sorry he was another 184 times or so. There are husbands out there who’ve been caught cheating with strippers who have apologized less.
But by Wednesday, something was clear: very few were inclined to accept Cena’s mealy-mouthed repentance. In China, according to reports, there was a feeling he was trying to have it both ways. Apologizing without saying what for struck some as the equivalent of Cena stopping a random passerby on the sidewalk and saying, “I shouldn’t have done that. Forgive me.”
Huh? What did you do? Meanwhile, in the West, where calling Taiwan a country is about as scandalous as calling McDonald’s a fast-food joint, Cena’s about-face was seen as more proof Hollywood’s obsession with getting a foothold in the Chinese market is now a slippery slope.
In the last 48 hours, Cena was called “gutless,” “cowardly,” “a damn fool,” “outrageous,” “pathetic” and “chickens–t.” It’s hard to disagree. But it’s also easy to see why Cena folded like a cheap tent and walked backwards into the woods with his hands in the air.
Hollywood fancies itself a powerful voice, one that speaks truth to power. But when the power is China, Hollywood is more likely to fake laryngitis. Over the last few years, in a desperate attempt to earn big bucks in the world’s second largest box office, Hollywood has repeatedly bowed to the foreign mandarins in China. Let’s get real. If Xi Jinping asked Universal Pictures to change its name to The Great Wall, that’s getting tabled as the first order of business at the next shareholder meeting. And that great wall is the firewall.
Will the Chinese Communist Party object to a fleeting Taiwanese pilot patch seen in the upcoming “Top Gun” sequel? Better take it out. Did Chloé Zhao, who was born in Beijing and just became the first Asian-American woman to win the Oscar for Best Director, once besmirch her homeland? Well, that means “Nomadland” is hereby banned in China, as are any references to the filmmaker on China’s closed-circuit internet. Any questions? Good.
John Cena is taking a lot of heat this week for making a damn fool out of himself. That’s exactly what he did. I no longer see a hulk who could easily beat me into a pulp. I mean, he still could! But I now see a snivelling scaredy-cat. That said, to be fair, Cena only did what Hollywood has been doing: kowtowing to an authoritarian regime by valuing profits above all else.
Anyone could sell knives to Jack the Ripper. That doesn’t make it right.
The craziest part is this slippery slope is now Made in the U.S.A. The paralyzing fear over how Chinese regulators might react to a character or storyline or costume or even throwaway bit of dialogue is so top-of-mind for skittish studio execs, authorities don’t even have to raise an objection prior to a junket because the production will have already self-censored.
China is not interested in compromise. It only cares about capitulation.
If you want a piece of this pie, be prepared to have it thrown in your face. In response to Cena’s apology on Weibo, one user wrote: “Please say in Chinese that Taiwan is part of China. Otherwise, we won’t accept it.”
There you go. Chasing the yuan has left Hollywood with no moral high ground.
It’s a script rewrite John Cena learned the hard way this week.