‘Playing with Fire’ lacks either originality or laughs.
Kernel Rating: 0.5 out of 5
MPAA Rating: PG Length: 96 minutes
Age Appropriate For: 8+. The movie’s sense of humor skews very young, with a lot of physical humor and bathroom humor, including an extended joke involving a messy diaper change; some scary stuff involving fires, risky rescues, and dangerous locations, like cliffsides; and some light romantic stuff, including flirting through text and a couple kissing. Actor John Cena also takes off his shirt.
By Roxana Hadadi
“Playing with Fire” follows a fairly recognizable live-action family-film formula: adult figure who dislikes children ends up trapped with children for a certain length of time. Will that adult change their mind? Probably! The same dynamic has been used for years to welcome actors with very masculine personas, from Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson to Mark Wahlberg, into the family-film world, and so it goes for John Cena and “Playing with Fire.” But without any sort of originality, and with a strangely unnatural performance from Cena himself, this film about macho firefighters stuck with rowdy children is almost uniformly forgettable.
“Playing with Fire” focuses on Cena’s character, Jake Carson, who dreams of a promotion and of a way to prove himself as equal to his father. He’s approached his entire career with strictness and discipline, and as a smokejumper who parachutes into forest and wildland areas to battle blazes, he carries a sizable amount of authority. His team includes the mute and muscular Axe (Tyler Mane), Rodrigo (John Leguizamo), a pilot afraid of heights, and Mark (Keegan-Michael Key), who almost serves as Jake’s hypeman, often repeating what he says. But those three adult men meet their match in a trio of kids they save and are then responsible for until their parents arive.
Teenage Brynn (Brianna Hildebrand) is used to taking care of her siblings already, and isn’t particularly interested in what Jake has to say. And younger siblings Will (Christian Convery) and Zoey (Finley Rose Slater) are always getting into trouble, whether it’s their curiosity about what nailguns do or what happens when you fill a room with soapsuds. This is all very juvenile stuff, and might amuse younger viewers, but forcing Cena to do goofy dances, take off his shirt, awkwardly flirt, and admit he’s never cried before is not exactly high comedy. And although Cena has proved to be game for anything in other R-rated comedies before, he somehow doesn’t get the rhythm of this lighter PG fare quite right.
Overall, “Playing with Fire” makes increasingly strange choices that not only make Jake’s character wholly unbelievable, but feel like the film itself is mocking the people who the smokejumpers have to save. The upbeat “Uptown Funk” pop song plays while we see a raging wildfire destroy and terrify a community. There is a deluge of “My Little Pony”-related content, so much of it that you might wonder whether parent company Hasbro has a stake in the film. And the bathroom humor! It’s meant to be edgy but one scene in particular, where young Zoey and Jake maintain eye contact while he goes to the bathroom outdoors, is so unbelivably bizarre that I’m not sure in what realm anyone would ever find this funny. “Playing with Fire” isn’t weird enough to be memorable or funny enough to be enjoyable; it’s not worth a trip to the theater.
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