'Playing With Fire': Film Review

Fun for the small fry, but not for adults.
11/8/2019

John Cena plays a by-the-books firefighter who gets saddled with caring for three children in this comedy also featuring Keegan-Michael Key, John Leguizamo and Judy Greer.

Hollywood never seems to tire of the belief that there's something inherently hilarious about huge, muscle-bound men, preferably former bodybuilders or wrestlers, interacting with very young children. The trend has become a rite of passage, with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dwayne Johnson paying their kiddie-movie dues in Kindergarten Cop and Tooth Fairy, respectively. Now John Cena gets the treatment in Playing With Fire, in which he plays an over-muscled smoke jumper who finds himself and his colleagues forced to temporarily share their remote fire depot with a teenage girl and her two younger siblings.

And to show they're nothing if not generous, the filmmakers even throw in another former wrestler, Tyler Mane, for good measure. The hulking actor, who played Michael Myers in Rob Zombie's Halloween movies, appears as an apparently mute firefighter who growls menacingly and always carries a very large axe, which is also what everybody calls him. Care to guess whether or not Axe actually turns out to be cute and cuddly by the end of the film?

Having the misfortune to be released at the height of California wildfire season, the Nickelodeon feature directed by Andy Fickman (Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2) represents harmless family entertainment of the mostly slapstick variety, with enough heavy doses of sentimentality to justify the near-constant brand placement of Kleenex tissues. The My Little Pony franchise gets heavily played up as well, which should provide a nice sales boost this holiday season.

Cena plays strait-laced smoke jumper Jake Carson, whom everyone calls "Supe." The nickname refers to his status as the superintendent of a Redding, California, fire station, but it might as well be short for Superman, since Jake routinely performs the sorts of feats of derring-do that would make even superheroes think twice. That's certainly true in the film's opening sequence, in which he's lowered from a helicopter into a burning cabin and scoops up the terrified 16-year-old Brynn (an appealing Brianna Hildebrand, Deadpool) and her 10-year-old brother Will (Christian Convery) and 3-year-old sister Zoey (Finley Rose Slater).

When Brynn informs Jake that their parents are away for the night celebrating a wedding anniversary, he decides to let them stay at the depot since an approaching storm prevents them from being transported to a hospital. Cue the predictable hijinks, with the kids repeatedly causing havoc for Jake and his fellow smoke jumpers Mark (Keegan-Michael Key), Rodrigo (John Leguizamo) and, of course, Axe. Also sharing the premises is a large, slobbering bull mastiff dog, because no family film should be without adorable canine reaction shots.

As you would expect, Jake — whose social skills are so lacking that he once walked out in the middle of a date with beautiful field biologist Dr. Amy Hick (Judy Greer), for whom he still clearly carries a torch — proves less than expert in managing a trio of out-of-control kids. He's soon inadvertently covered in a variety of noxious substances, which provides the opportunity for Cena to remove his shirt with regularity. (Indeed, a chest hasn't gotten such loving camera treatment since the days of Jayne Mansfield and Sophia Loren.)

The sort of family-oriented comedy that apparently thinks that a precocious toddler nearly killing people with a nail gun or a rambunctious tween accidentally laying waste to a firehouse is laugh-out-out funny (and to be fair, many of the younger audience members at the preview screening thought it was), Playing With Fire strikes strictly predictably beats. Key and Leguizamo, comic talents who are wildly overqualified for this sort of thing, work hard, very hard, to infuse the tired material with laughs. But they're mostly hamstrung by their one-note characters, which for Key means behaving as manically as possible and Leguizamo repeatedly mangling historical quotes and displaying an intense proclivity for cooking with Spam.

Screenwriters Dan Ewen and Matthew Liberman attempt to bring some late-in-the-game emotionality to the proceedings with subplots about the children's desperate efforts to avoid being separated in foster care and the burgeoning romance between Jake and Amy (which mainly demonstrates that the charming Greer is far too talented to be playing a standard-issue love interest).

Cena naturally relies on his imposing physicality to get many of his laughs, including riding a tiny pink bicycle and wearing a My Little Pony t-shirt so small on him that it becomes a crop top. But he goes through his paces as a walking sight gag with admirable good humor, and he's so essentially appealing that you can't help but root for his character as he attempts to win the girl and receive a promotion from his officious, comically macho boss (Dennis Haysbert, in an amusingly self-mocking performance).

A little of this sort of thing, including a frenzied montage in which the hard-boiled firefighters pull out the stops during a shopping expedition for a girl's birthday party, goes a very long way. Despite the film's relatively brief running time, parents will likely be checking their watches more often than not. But the young target audience, for whom much of this formulaic material will seem fresh, will probably have a raucously fun time.

Production companies: Paramount Players, Nickelodeon Movies, Walden Media, Broken Road Productions
Distributor: Paramount
Cast: John Cena, Keenan-Michael Key, John Leguizamo, Brianna Hildebrand, Dennis Haysbert, Judy Greer, Tyler Mane, Christian Convery, Finley Rose Slater
Director: Andy Fickman
Screenwriters: Dan Ewen, Matt Lieberman
Producers: Todd Garner, Sean Robins
Executive producer: Mark Moran
Director of photography: Dean Semler
Production designer: Brent Thomas
Editor: Elisabet Ronaldsdottir
Composer: Nathan Wang
Costume designer: Monique Prudhomme
Casting: Rich Delia

Rated PG, 90 minutes