Playing with Fire, 2019.
Directed by Andy Fickman.
Starring John Cena, Brianna Hildebrand, Keegan-Michael Key, Judy Greer, John Leguizamo, Tyler Mane, Christian Convery, Finley Rose Slater, and Dennis Haysbert.
A crew of rugged firefighters meet their match when attempting to rescue three rambunctious kids.
Playing with Fire is a dumpster fire. I’m also willing to bet the only reason this movie exists is because the thematically similar Instant Family (a much better movie compared to this, and even it is not that great) made Paramount a decent amount of money, and that no one wanted to or could get back together for a sequel, meaning the studio decided doing the same thing involving smoke fighters (apparently, not the same thing as firefighters which is one of the many lame jokes present here) was the next best idea.
John Cena, Keegan Michael-Key (of all the noteworthy names here, this is the one that is most concerning considering Keegan is light-years above this lowbrow material), and John Leguizamo play the overly dedicated serviceman (they seemingly have no home and live together in their Redding, California-base). There are also a few more members of the team that quit five minutes into the movie and are never seen again. Last but not least, the fourth member is an ax carrying gentle giant that randomly disappears for large stretches of the movie, only to reappear when it feels convenient for him to do something.
From the get-go, it’s clear that Playing with Fire (directed by Andy Fickman, a filmmaker familiar making family comedies starring professional wrestlers having previously worked with Dwayne Johnson on The Gameplan) doesn’t have a clue, trying to squeeze humor from dangerous situations that regularly affect California for real, setting these rescue missions to mainstream pop music to widen that tonal dissonance. Obviously, no one gets hurt (this is a Nickelodeon project), as this trio gets everyone to safety, usually somehow leaving a bigger mess than they rappelled into. That’s not to say a family comedy requires something tragic to happen within the scenarios, but it’s probably not a good idea to underplay how hazardous fighters can be to the target demographic of children.
If that was the worst problem with Playing with Fire, it would still have a chance at being passable, but my god the jokes scrape the bottom of the barrel when it comes to toilet humor. For those unaware yet, the plot involves these characters putting out the flames inside of a residence and bringing its three children back to base to watch over them until their vacationing parents return in the morning (they are bound by law to do so). Naturally, guardianship proves to be difficult (John Cena is especially consumed with firefighting, viewing everything else including a potential love interest in Judy Greer as a distraction) as the kids (they range in age from teenager to toddler) constantly disobey and runoff. At one point, John Cena has to try taking a dump in a forest during the middle of the night while holding and staring into the eyes of a toddler. Playing with Fire is so bad that when someone from Child Protective Services enters the movie, you kind of hope it’s a real person to take the children away from working on a film so god-awful.
There’s also an awkward and forced fascination with having these grown men indulge in watching My Little Pony, which increasingly becomes more integral as the movie goes on. At first, it’s a mildly amusing gag that John Leguizamo and Keegan Michael-Key are Bronies, but when John Cena dons an MLP T-shirt that is both too small yet fitted for his chiseled body, things become really weird. And by this point, we have already seen John Cena fail at changing diapers with fluids squirting onto his muscular shoulders. Still, the biggest offense might be a scene where a character is encouraged to communicate and open up emotionally more (wait for it) by mastering the art of emojis. I wish I was making all this up. As for Keegan, he pops into frames randomly as an amusing sight gag that somewhat works; he’s a true sport, inexplicably giving his performance a ton of energy.
The only decent thing to say about Playing with Fire is that when the script from Dan Ewen and Matt Lieberman is not employing some of the worst gross-out humor imaginable, John Cena and Deadpool‘s Brianna Hildebrand (another talented performer that I have to question the appeal to signing on, here playing the oldest of the three children) share one or two tender moments regarding the importance of family. Playing with Fire eventually makes the point that loved ones are not distractions but rather the reasons for pushing through our work, which is a nice change of pace from “be yourself”, but there are no brownie points factoring in that the first 85 minutes are truly abysmal. It should go down as the lowest point in everyone’s career, and that’s saying something considering John Leguizamo played Luigi in Super Mario Brothers.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ / Movie: ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com