Chris Knight reviews a new release about a group of firefighters who must look after the kids they have just rescued
The latest family-friendly comedy from Nickelodeon (Wonder Park, Dora and the Lost City of Gold) opens with star John Cena fighting a blaze in the woods outside Redding, Calif. Because these days nothing says funny like a raging west coast forest fire!
Maybe that’s not completely fair to Playing with Fire, since the film feels more like something that should have opened in the early ’90s, a simpler time when all you needed for yuks was a few cute kids, a gruff muscleman and a slobbery dog.
Cena stars as Jake Carson, heading up a team of smokejumpers; firefighters who parachute into literal hot spots to do their job. His crew includes John Leguizamo as the guy who tries to deliver inspirational quotations but always gets them wrong; Keegan-Michael Key as the guy who swoops into scenes unexpectedly, accompanied by a “swoosh” sound; and Tyler Mane as Axe, who carries one.
Have they got problems! The big boss (Dennis Haysbert) is coming to inspect the station and maybe offer Jake a promotion. Local scientist Dr. Amy Hicks (Judy Greer) keeps making Jake go weak in the knees. And they’ve just saved a trio of siblings and now have to look after them until their parents can be located. Oh, and they should probably put out fires if they can find the time.
Cena is clearly looking to follow fellow wrestler Dwayne Johnson (Tooth Fairy, Jumanji, the upcoming Jungle Cruise) in stretching his comedy muscles, but Playing With Fire suggests he didn’t limber up enough before the cameras rolled. But it’s not all his fault – the script features kids who misbehave for reasons of plot rather than character, and relies heavily on clichés like the shopping montage and the notion of tough guys who don’t cry – until they do!
Director Andy Fickman worked with Johnson in 2009’s Race to Witch Mountain, and with a different kind of heavyweight in Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2. He shoots this one lazily, letting his buff cast and the scenery of British Columbia (where it was shot) do most of the heavy lifting.
And the film runs longer than it should, even at 96 minutes. It would be 92 if you took out the poop-emoji texting scene; 85 if you cut the bit where Cena has to change a diaper (it puts the noxious in obnoxious); and a trim 80 if you removed another needless scatological scene. Although that one at least answers the philosophical conundrum: Does John Cena poop in the woods? Answer: He does if you pay him enough.
Playing with Fire opens across Canada on Nov. 8.