Blu-ray Review: Playing With Fire

The tough guy that’s too strong and busy to be in touch with his emotions being forced into a situation where he has to care for kids isn’t anything new for Hollywood; but if you’re going to revisit an old trope, you best have something to add to it, or else, why bother? Playing with Fire basically follows the same playbook as Vin Diesel’s The Pacifier and Dwayne Johnson’s The Game Plan, but instead of attempting to tell any sort of story that consists of actual growth from its characters, Playing with Fire is more like an introduction to slapstick comedy for kids, and that’s about all it has to offer.

I will say right out of the gate that I did laugh a number of times, but that’s not an endorsement that the movie is actually good. It’s the type of harmless and completely mindless movie that you put on in hopes of keeping kids busy for 90-minutes, but I’m not even sure that’s a guarantee. I do try to view these types of movies from the eyes of a child because, well, they’re not made for 38 year-olds, but honestly it’s hard to really say who the film’s target audience is, as the story and jokes are all over the map.

John Cena stars as Superintendent Jake Carson, the commanding officer of a group of smokejumpers deep in the California woodlands. A smokejumper, for those who don’t know, is a specially trained firefighter that jumps out of a plane and parachute into the front lines of a wildfire or other types of fires that other emergency crews may not be able reach as quickly. Their heroism is showcased early on when Carson and his crew jump in to hold off a wildfire from reaching civilians trapped on a highway until other fire crews can arrive on scene.

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Right away it’s clear that there’s no attempt at realism in terms of how this movie portrays firefighters or smokejumpers or anything for that matter. It’s a goofy movie that was made to provide cheap laughs, often through the most trivial, cliché means. The smokejumpers on Carson’s team are all one-dimensional caricatures, as is Carson himself. There’s Rodrigo Torres (John Leguizamo), who actions throughout really have no rhyme or reason to them. He misquotes famous people, he cries when others cry and he constantly panics when it comes to responsibility. He also shows no growth at any point, nor is it clear how he got such a dangerous job where lives are at stake when he’s so neurotic.

Then there’s the most cliché character in the entire movie in Axe (Tyler Mane.) He’s a mute giant that carries around an axe at all times. Why? Apparently to his co-workers it’s so that he’s always ready to go…but it’s just as pointless as the traits of any other character in the movie. No surprise either, Axe later reveals that he has an operatic singing voice when he finally does speak because clichés. Also, the entire team is shocked by this, so again, it’s unclear how Axe ever got this job to begin with.

Lastly there’s Carson’s right hand man, Mark Rogers (Keegan-Michael Key), who shows loyalty to Carson like no other, almost to a fault. His running joke throughout is that he appears from thin air to insert himself into situations, and sometimes vanishes just as quickly. It’s silly and shows the type of world this movie takes place in, as one moment he’ll be beside a bunk bed talking with Carson the kids, then he’ll literally duck away slowly and is nowhere to be seen a second later in a wide shot.

The movie never takes itself seriously, yet at the same time it wants us to take it seriously as the movie progresses. I got a bit ahead of myself, early on Carson and the team rescue three kids: Brynn (Brianna Hildebrand), Will (Christian Convery), and Zoey (Finley Rose Slater), and thanks to Safe Haven Law, they’re required to bring them back to their headquarters until a storm passes and their parents can pick them up. Almost instantly the kids start getting into trouble, doing ridiculous things like spraying a fire extinguisher, or shooting flares inside causing Carson to lay down the law and put the kids to bed because he’s a serious guy with painfully big muscles and he won’t stand for these shenanigans to take place on his watch.

Oh, and that’s Carson in a nutshell because that’s how the lead character in these types of films has to be so that the kids can slowly chip away at his shell to reveal the soft, gooey peanut that was in there all along. Okay, that analogy went off the rails fairly quickly, so it actually fits perfectly in line with the way the story of Playing with Fire is delivered.

Now while movies like The Pacifier may not have been great, and it’s been a long time since I’ve seen it, I do remember enjoying it. And in movies like that the lead character grows and opens himself up to love or realizing that it’s okay to be emotional. It sounds like a silly lesson, but it can work well enough if done right. Playing with Fire doesn’t do it right, as everything happens incredibly fast. Carson can’t stand the kids and wants to pass them off to Dr. Amy Hicks (Judy Greer,) an environmental doctor trying to preserve a species of toads that Carson once went on a date with but couldn’t open himself up so he just left her midway through the date. She doesn’t bite and Carson is stuck with them.

And instead of a bond slowly growing between Carson and the kids, he finds out a secret that Brynn, the oldest, has been hiding and it’s a complete 180 by everyone instantly. It’s just jarringly fast. Now I do get that this is a movie for kids, but they’re really just throwing out the least amount of effort here by filling in the paint-by-numbers basic level script as quickly as possible. Sure, Carson may change his views on the kids, but it just doesn’t feel natural, and with the movie taking place in some parallel universe where the most incompetent people have somehow become smokejumpers and they all seem to have a lesser IQ than the kids they saved, it all just feels too preposterous to even take seriously in the slightest – which the movie wants you to do about midway through. Well, at least from an emotional standpoint, as the characters are all still one-note joke dispensers.

In short, I’m not sure why Playing with Fire was made. It was fine for some time filler, but there’s so much more out there that also fills time that’s just better all around. It’s unfortunate, as the idea could’ve worked. I’m a fan of Cena, Key and Leguizamo, and the kids are good, and all truly deserved a better. Playing with Fire just never feels sure if it wants to be an overly ridiculous slapstick movie, or a comedy that’s silly but has heart and because of this it ends up being a confusing mix of both in ways that don’t complement one another at all.

Playing with Fire looks great visually and has a very warm feeling to it, no pun intended. It’s a family movie, so it has the more vibrant look, even the darker scenes aren’t overly dark, and everything just has a wholesome vibe to it, which works in its favour. The audio hits all the same beats, creating that welcoming family atmosphere, filled with pop music that’s fire themed and a score that’s the usual mix for a movie that hits all the same notes this one does.

Special Features:

The Director’s Diaries: Read by Star Cast – This is a 5-minute featurette that sees Cena and Key read parts of daily e-mails from Director Andy Fickman. It’s some fun fluff that’s in line with the movie itself.

Lighting Up the Laughs – This is a 3-minute featurette that focuses on the tea parties held on set, as they’re an ongoing thing that Zoey, the youngest child tries to have throughout the film.

The Real Smokejumpers: This Is Their Story – This is a two and a half minute featurette that sees Cena talk about the work of smokejumpers, which honestly, is a profession I’m sure many didn’t know about until they saw this movie. Fast but good stuff here.

What It Means To Be A Family – This is a four and a half minute featurette that sees the cast and crew talking about what they believe it means to be a family.

Storytime with John Cena – This is a 90-second version of The Three Little Pigs, read by John Cena.

Deleted Scenes – There are a number of deleted scenes here if you’re interested in seeing more of the movie for whatever reason.

Bloopers – This is a two and a half minute blooper real that shows that there could’ve been a lot more done with the cast here had they had a better script.

Paramount Pictures Presents Playing with Fire. Directed by: Andy Fickman. Written by: Dan Ewen, Matt Lieberman. Starring: John Cena, Keegan-Michael Key, John Leguizamo, Brianna Hildebrand, Christian Convery, Finley Rose Slater, Judy Greer, Tyler Mane. Running time: 96 Minutes. Rating: PG. Released on Blu-ray: Feb. 4, 2020.

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