Written by: Matt Patti
Playing with Fire (Andy Fickman, 2019) 1½ out of 4 stars.
Another entry in the “brooding tough guy has to babysit kids” comedy subgenre, Playing with Fire stars John Cena as said tough guy Jake Carson, the rugged leader of a group of “smoke jumpers,” a division of firefighters who parachute into forest fires and extinguish them. The film also stars Keegan Michael Key of Key and Peele and John Leguizamo (John Wick) as Carson’s subordinates in his crew. The plot kicks off with the smoke jumpers rescuing three kids from a burning log cabin. Unfortunately, they find that the kids’ parents are gone for the week, so under the safe-haven law the three smokejumpers must take care of the kids until their parents return. The kids wreak havoc at the base, breaking things and making messes. Can Cena and his crew overcome their biggest challenge yet … handling these kids?
Cena follows in the footsteps of similar actors of years past starring in features as “the muscular, no nonsense, tough guy” dealing with an unexpected responsibility of taking care of kids, such as Vin Diesel in The Pacifier and Dwayne Johnson in Tooth Fairy. Unfortunately, while those two films let their stars shine in their roles, Playing with Fire does not, with Cena coming off as a robotic, narcissistic, somewhat unlikeable piece of muscle meat who is socially awkward and seemingly doesn’t know how to do anything that doesn’t involve fires or the extinguishing of them. This, of course, is not the talented Cena’s fault at all. The problem lies within the script.
The script fails in almost all aspects. The lines were cringeworthy at points, and very few words spoken from the main characters were actually funny. I wasn’t sure it was possible, but this film rendered John Cena and Keegan Michael Key, two very talented and funny personalities, utterly humorless. In fact, I’d argue that both Cena and Key are much funnier in interviews and in public than they were in this movie … which is a tribute to their personalities but also to this script’s inability to capitalize on their comedic talents. Also, the story is very repetitive, familiar, and predictable. It follows almost every single beat of those aforementioned similar films. Nothing seems new. I found myself predicting the ending about ¾ of the way through the movie, and I was correct about every single aspect of how the ending played out. It’s not too hard to guess when you’ve seen the same thing before so many times.
Playing with Fire isn’t awful, and could be enjoyed by kids and some easygoing families. There is enough slapstick humor and pop-culture references to keep audiences moderately interested, and there are a few funny moments. The effects and cinematography in the film are unimpressive but harken back to a nostalgic ‘90s movie, which might please some. However, anyone looking for something that can be enjoyed by adults alone will be disappointed by the repetitive, stale story with so many predictable beats and rushed mood changes. I feel like kids might even become a bit bored with the movie. For a film that runs at about 96 minutes, it felt much longer … which isn’t a good thing. Overall, Playing with Fire is a disappointing comedy that is very familiar and unoriginal, while at the same time not playing on the same level as those familiar films that came before it. Instead of presenting a raging fire, the film is executed more like a blown-out candle.