If there was ever a film that was tailor-made for a star, it’s Playing With Fire. It feels designed for John Cena and all his characteristics that audiences (especially young kids) have grown to love over the years. The WWE superstar has taken many of his pro wrestling shenanigans and brought it to the screen, which leads to an over ninety-minute narrative with a fair amount of highs, and some pretty obvious lows.
Directed by Andy Fickman, who famously brought Dwayne Johnson to kid-friendly entertainment with The Game Plan and Race to Witch Mountain, Playing With Fire tells the story of Jake Carson (John Cena), who is the leader of a team of Smokejumpers, a different profession to regular Fire Fighters, a fact the characters remind us of many times. During one of his missions, he rescues three young children from a burning home, and as luck would have it, he’s unable to take them to their parents, and cannot drop them to the local authorities due to weather conditions. So the tough Smokejumpers have to strap up and take on their new mission of babysitting.
The film starts strong with a fun introductory scene that seemingly ticks all the boxes. We witness a forest that is on fire, and Jake Carson and his team come down from helicopters and take out the fire in minutes. Instantly, Cena’s made to feel like Superman. The camera pans up from his feet to his face, showcasing his incredibly huge physique, and after surveying the scene, singlehandedly defuses the danger. It’s fun, quick, and at times, genuinely funny as Jake’s nonexistent emotions are on full display as he ignores a child running towards him for a hug, which leads to the child hitting a car. Well-timed humour.
Much like the opening scene, John Cena becomes the singular focus throughout Playing With Fire, and fortunately, his performance is strong. Cena can often deliver childish jokes, be over the top, robotic, and fortunately, all of that fits perfectly with the tone of this film. He’s in his element, and it allows his natural charisma to take over, making the performance all the more enjoyable. To Cena’s credit, he also rises to the occasion during his romantic scenes with Judy Greer. Their interactions have the right amount of comedy and sweetness to leave a smile on the face of audiences.
Although the former WWE Champion is the star, Keegan-Michael Key is, without a doubt, the star performer in his role as Mark Rogers, one of the Smokejumpers led by Jake. Keegan’s comedic timing is impeccable, bringing a spark to scenes when they need it most. His character’s reoccurring action of standing incredibly close to Jake while talking is one of the funnier gags in the film. Also, he allows certain jokes to build and settle in, which was highlighted by his “Or what?” debate with Brynn (Brianna Hildebrand), where his excellent facial expressions did all the talking.
Director Andy Fickman was well aware of what he was making here. The film is unabashedly proud and honest with what it is, and that’s an absurd, feel-good kid-friendly comedy. This self-awareness often works in the film’s favour, as well.
However, a narrative like this is never without its painfully obvious deficiencies. For one, there’s hardly a story, meaning a lot of scenes feel like random events as opposed to a piece of a larger story arc. There are no surprises, and the audience can predict exactly where the story is going nine times out of ten, if not ten times out of ten.
Although Keegan-Michael Key shines bright in his role, John Cena’s other partner in crime John Leguizamo, fails miserably in his desperate attempt to be the buffoon of the group. His jokes and actions feel forced and completely unnatural, and his reoccurring gag of misusing quotes is tiresome. On a few occasions, his jokes land, but more often than not, he’s an irritating figure on screen. It’s not a good outing for the talented Leguizamo.
The film also speeds through at such a pace, that it even rushes through more emotional scenes between Jake Carson and the children. Thus making it difficult to invest or even potentially shed a tear with the characters.
In the end, Playing With Fire throws all the kid-friendly comedy stereotypes at you. Little girl befriending a mean-looking dog, a “macho man” forced to tussle with his emotional side, and plenty of slapstick fun. It is by no means a memorable cinematic experience, but if nothing else, it accomplishes its mission of amusing the target audience and is a perfect vehicle for John Cena to endear himself to the demographic that was pivotal to his success in the ring.
Dir: Andy Fickman
Scr: Dan Ewen, Matt Lieberman
Cast: John Cena, Keegan-Michael Key, John Leguizamo, Brianna Hilderbrand, Dennis Haysbert, Judy Greer
Prd: Todd Gardner, Sean Robins
DoP: Dean Semler
Music: 96 mins
Runtime: 96 minutes
Playing With Fire is out in cinemas on 26th December 2019