If somebody told you a movie starring John Cena and Jackie Chan was coming soon to theaters, your ears would probably perk up. The concept of these two notable action stars joining forces for a movie is certainly rife with potential, especially since Chan is still capable of incredible feats of stunt work. Here’ the thing: That movie does exist, it’s called Snafu—previously known as Project X and Project X-Traction—and it finished filming years ago. However, while Snafu was once set for a notable theatrical debut, there’s been no word since on when this film, which was almost entirely financed by Chinese companies, will actually get released or even if it will ever see the light of day. What happened here? How could a movie that united Cena and Chan become the equivalent of The Day the Clown Cried for modern action movie schlock?
To understand what happened, we have to go to the beginning of Snafu, specifically when the project started to get rolling. In June 2018, Deadline reported that Cena would be starring in the film with Chan, which would shoot in China. Between then and now, a lot has changed, including Cena’s caliber as an actor. This casting occurred months before Bumblebee came out, let alone his more high-profile work in The Suicide Squad or F9. Meanwhile, the love affair between Hollywood studios and China that had been ongoing throughout the 2010s was only just now starting to see a hint of problems stemming from tumultuous U.S./China trade relations.
While there were some ominous signs of problems ahead, these two film industries were largely still chummy and that made a production like Snafu that utilized American filmmakers and actors still seem enticing. Just before filming began in June 2018, director Scott Waugh and lead actors Chan and Cena talked about how excited they were for the film. “It’s going to be so special,” Cena said according to THR. “Not only will we make a good movie, I’m going to learn so much.” For his part, Chan was excited about what kind of characters the project could provide to the Chinese film industry. “China as a country is bigger and stronger now, so we really need heroes,” Chan explained.
The same outlet also noted that the main performers agreed that Snafu (then titled Project X) would hope to replicate the then-recent success of China’s biggest homegrown action films like Wolf Warriors II. The piece concluded with a now-unintentionally foreboding note where Waugh expressed hope that this production could be seen as the new standard for U.S/China film collaborations. “Cross-pollination has always been a challenge,” Waugh noted. “But we want it to entertain audiences everywhere.”
Filming proceeded without much of a publicly-known hitch, with Cena revealing his love for living in China during filming in September 2018. By the end of the year, cameras had finished rolling on Snafu. This is when things went quiet for the project, with nary a peep emerging in 2019 on plans for when this action film would get released. Cena referenced Snafu while promoting Dolittle in January 2020, but solely to talk about his love for Chan and how he treats his crew members. The affectionate antidote painted a fine picture of his co-star but Cena offered no glimpse of when this movie would finally see the light of day.
The already uncertain release trajectory of the film was put into even more chaos when the COVID-19 pandemic first shut down theaters in China, Snafu’s primary market, in January 2020 before the rest of the world’s multiplexes followed suit just two months later. Snafu could not hit the Chinese box office heights it was striving for if there were no movie theaters to play it. Once Chinese theaters reopened in July 2021, there was still no word on Snafu, with multiplexes in this country instead focused on screening films like the successful war drama, The Eight Hundred.
That’s the other problem most likely stifling Snafu’s release. In the last few years, and particularly in 2021, mainstream Chinese cinema has largely been more interested in local productions starring Chinese movie stars. While the occasional Avengers: Endgame can still dominate the Chinese box office, the likes of Wolf Warriors II and Hi, Mom are now the de facto titles that Chinese moviegoers rush out for. Thus, an action film where John Cena is on equal footing with Jackie Chan sounds like a marketing risk for Chinese distributors in 2021.
The whole project sounds even riskier to such individuals in the wake of Cena’s recent PR snafu. In May 2021, while promoting F9, Cena referred to Taiwan as a country, which is heavily discouraged in Chinese media. This prompted a backlash from China and a prompt apology from Cena. The response to the latter development has seen Cena lambasted in both the West and the East, with it being unclear if Chinese moviegoers will now seek out an action film starring John Cena, even one that pairs him up with Jackie Chan. Snafu has already spent years lurking in obscurity, but Cena’s recent publicity problems have helped to alienate the one country that was supposed to come out in droves to see it.
It’s also unclear how much appeal there would be in North America for a title like Snafu. While Cena’s Taiwan kerfuffle hasn’t impacted the domestic box office or release of recent titles like F9 or Vacation Friends, the bigger problem is that Chinese features rarely get major pushes in the U.S. Even a record-break box office bonanza like Wolf Warriors II could only secure distribution from Well Go USA in America.
Meanwhile, Skiptrace, a 2016 film pairing Chan with Johnny Knoxville, could only muster up a direct to video-on-demand release in the U.S., so even the novelty of a noteworthy American actor doesn’t help homegrown Chinese features garner major distribution. Despite starring a pair of major actors and carrying an $80 million budget, it’s unclear if there’s much demand for a notable release of Snafu in the two biggest movie markets on the planet.
Where does Snafu go from here? It’s hard to say. The Chinese film industry provides little to no explanations for when titles suddenly get shelved, as seen by The Eight Hundred initially being planned for a 2019 debut before getting abruptly delayed a whole year. Thus, it’s unlikely there will be much clarity on the future of Snafu, especially since its box office prospects in any major territory seem low at best. The best hope John Cena and Jackie Chan have is that maybe some direct-to-video distributor will be able to pick it up and give it a digital release.
This leaves Snafu in an incredibly awkward position, especially given all the high hopes that were once attached to it. The notion of Cena and Chan starring in an action film still sounds like it could make for a fun movie while the enduring appeal of both Chan and action movies in China certainly made it seem like Snafu would become a box office hit in the world’s largest moviegoing market. But a lot has changed in the time between when Snafu began filming and now. All those changes have left Snafu in a state of such intense limbo that it seems likely we may never actually get to this movie.