Playing With Fire
2019, PG, 96 min. Directed by Andy Fickman. Starring John Cena, Keegan-Michael Key, John Leguizamo, Judy Greer, Tyler Mane, Brianna Hildebrand, Christian Convery, Dennis Haysbert, Finley Rose Slater.
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., Nov. 8, 2019
This mirthless comedy about a manly crew of smokejumpers helplessly babysitting a trio of rescued brats has more dead air in it than a radio broadcast hosted by a narcoleptic disc jockey. In the silence following each flat-footed joke, one right after the other, you can hear oxygen molecules bumping into each other. Playing With Fire begins with the dramatic aerial entrance of the firefighting foursome as they parachute into a blazing California forest, led by all-work-and-no-play Superintendent Jack “Soup” Carson (Cena), a square-jawed stickler with a plastered-down haircut and the button-popping physique of an overinflated GI Joe action figure. Soup’s heroics shortlist him for a long-awaited promotion, but everything gets turned upside down when he and his three colleagues (Key, Leguizamo, and a pickaxe-cradling Mane) must temporarily care for three parentless siblings saved from a burning cabin, each of them a poster child for human sterilization. While the oldest of them creeps around the firehouse like some snoopy specter, the two younger spawns of Satan run amok in the place, aiming nail guns and fireball pistols at their adult caretakers and serving them teacups of lighter fluid (not to mention pooping in their mouths – oops, mentioned!), all the while impishly giggling as they wreak third-rate Home Alone mayhem in a movie only an exorcism could salvage.
Who’s to say whether the movie is dumbed down for a juvenile audience, or just plain dumb(ed)? (Clue: Director Fickman also helmed Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2.) Whatever the case, the Three Stooges pratfalls in Playing With Fire fail to pass comedic muster, even for an 8-year-old. While Cena 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, as does everyone else in the movie, except for the firehouse dog. The canine’s performance is the only honest one in the bunch, whining and whimpering in reaction to selected comic misfires in a movie chock-full of them. As for Greer’s turn as the movie’s toad-loving love interest, she’s given the dubious honor of reciting its most memorable – and not in a good way – line, one dispensing advice about child-rearing, even though her character appears to have zero experience on the matter. “Kids are like fires, you can’t control them,” she says Yoda-like with a straight face. “You just have to contain them until they burn themselves out.” Ugh. Will someone please call Child Protective Services?