Synopsis – A crew of rugged firefighters meet their match when attempting to rescue three rambunctious kids.
My Take – You got to admit, films like this one are quite rare now days. A goofy family film where we witness testosterone-fueled action stars showing their softer, more comedic sides when forced to deal with children. A formula which worked to financial success for Arnold Schwarzenegger, Vin Diesel and to some extend Dwayne Johnson.
And like those particular films they starred in, this one too doesn’t pretend to be anything else. It’s goofy and silly, with all sorts of physical slapstick and juvenile, gross-out humor.
Which is quite evident here as director Andy Fickman favors poop jokes and the cringe-humor of watching little kids court danger with a nail gun, kerosene, an ax and sometimes literally fire, mostly at the expense of John Cena, the muscle man with a funny bone here. It is also quite evident that the main point of this film’s existence is to be an acceptable fare for children to watch and have a good time, but that’s about it.
At best, the film is an inoffensive, juvenile-oriented family fare, but at worst, it’s very predictable, inane, forgettable and very boring. Because for the adults, there is still a difference between a cheesy snooze comedy or a surprisingly funny slapstick film that has some semblance of a soul.
The story follows Jake Carson (John Cena), a by-the-book station superintendent smoke-jumper, whose only focus is work. As the supervisor, he runs a tight army like division, forcing his subordinates, Mark (Keegan-Michael Key), Rodrigo (John Leguizamo) and Axe (Tyler Mane), despite their admiration for him, to wish that their fearless leader would have more of a life outside of the station.
A factor which remains variable as Jake has been out on a few dates with Dr. Amy Hicks (Judy Greer), the local biologist, but ended up panicking when he realized that he liked her and wanted to avoid any personal connections, fearing it would distract him from his work.
However, their lives change when the smoke-jumpers end up rescuing three kids, from a burning cabin. And since it happened just as the weekend was beginning, they are forced to shelter the kids in their headquarters until their parents return. Forcing the four men to deal with Brynn (Brianna Hildebrand), the shifty oldest, and her younger siblings, Will (Christian Convery) and Zoey (Finley Rose Slater), who are too busy causing havoc. To make matters worse, Jake is also expecting a visit from Commander Richards (Dennis Haysbert), to discuss about being a possible candidate for his own job when he retires. One can only wonder if something will go wrong.
Admittedly the film does have a sense of an appealing modesty, as most of it takes place over the course of a single weekend with the actors keeping the energy levels high without going full-on manic; and the film tries, however clumsily, to sidestep the latent sexism of its manly-men-be-parenting sub-genre. Everything is hammered home and unsubtle here, but nothing is terribly bad or inappropriate.
The general message and thematic morals of the film are nice. The plot does feature a lot of contrived developments regarding the children in order to move the plot forward. The setups for some of the sillier gags are ridiculous, after all this is a fairly ridiculous type of comedy.
Sadly, the film never shows similar curiosity about what its young audience, and subjects, might be thinking or feeling. The film has all the ingredients of a been there/seen that tough guy gets melted entree. The wacky pilot who constantly gets his historical quotes wrong, the large and quiet ax man and the loyal sidekick and comic relief. Don’t forget about the sweet love interest who everybody thinks Jake should ask out. It’s all there.
But the problem with the film isn’t that isn’t original, fun, or worthwhile to begin with, it just happens to be slapstick comedy at its worst, and most importantly, it’s very forgettable. Here, director Andy Fickman (Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2, Race to Witch Mountain) adds nothing to the comic mix with his limp sense of what is funny and what is simply making faces and screaming and overplaying every allegedly humorous line.
I understand this is a film meant for families and children. This kind of film is meant to make kids laugh and have a good time. But it’s admittedly hard to be funny with the trials that writers Matt Lieberman and Dan Ewen throw into this script.
For example, Zoey’s main character traits is farting or filling her pants. At one point, Jake, in full firefighter garb, attempts to change Zoey, which results in Zoey projectile shitting up his sleeve, and drenching his mask. It’s the most egregious case of the film’s comedic sense, which is essentially to make big messes, with the hope that the scenario alone will be funny.
Coming to John Cena, a household name to those familiar with professional wrestling, has always had a very likable personality. And it is easy to compare Cena to his former wrestling rival, Dwayne Johnson, as both are full-time actors now and both have been in comedies that have varied in quality. The difference being that Johnson, even with bad material, he shines. You know he’s on-screen for a reason, and he has the charisma to at least soften the blow of a truly awful film. While Cena isn’t quite there yet; though he amusingly poked fun at his macho persona in Trainwreck and played up daddy anxiety in Blockers, he tries way too hard to be funny here.
In supporting roles, Keegan-Michael Key and John Leguizamo ham it up, while delivering some enjoyable sequences too. Judy Greer is once again wasted in a role that doesn’t realize her full potential. Brianna Hildebrand, is believable as a teen despite being 23, and is ably supported by the adorable Christian Convery and Finley Rose Slater. I am not sure why Dennis Haysbert chose to appear in this film. Interestingly enough, it’s amusing to see Tyler Mane, aka Sabretooth of X-Men (200), show up here in a somewhat prominent role as the silent and intimidating Axe and get a humorous gag quite reminiscent of Hollywood slasher-horror films. On the whole, ‘Playing with Fire’ is an unfunny comedy that is predictable and follows all the familiar, usual beats.
Directed – Andy Fickman
Rated – PG
Run Time – 96 minutes