Playing With Fire, 2019.
Directed by Andy Fickman.
Starring John Cena, Keegan-Michael Key, Brianna Hildebrand, John Leguizamo, Tyler Mane, Judy Greer, Christian Convery, Finley Rose Slater and Dennis Haysbert.
A no-nonsense smoke jumper finds himself caring for a trio of unruly children when he rescues them from their burning home.
It seems that every wrestler-turned-actor has to go through a phase of starring in bizarre family comedies. Dwayne Johnson had Tooth Fairy, Hulk Hogan had Mr Nanny. Heck, even The Miz had Santa’s Little Helper. The next grappler to step up to the plate is John Cena in Playing With Fire. It’s a big, broad and cutesy comedy that loves a cliché almost as much as it loves a slapstick sequence of someone falling over. With that said, though, it’s a tonne of fun largely carried along on Cena’s gargantuan shoulders.
The former WWE ace plays Captain Jake Carson, who is not a fireman but a smoke jumper – the distinction is hugely important to him. Several of his crew leave for a bigger unit, leaving Jake behind with just Mark (Keegan-Michael Key), Rodrigo (John Leguizamo) and the taciturn Axe (Tyler Mane). During one dramatic rescue job, Jake plucks three children – teenage Brynn (Brianna Hildebrand), Will (Christian Convery) and Zoey (Finley Rose Slater) – from a burning building and, when their parents say they can’t collect them until morning because of a storm, he realises he is going to have to look after them until the bad weather passes.
This is a setup that, in some form or another, has carried dozens of gentle family comedies over the years, and it does so again here. Cena’s megawatt charisma ignites both his harsh, brooding side and the goofy softness that has always lurked behind his persona on the big screen and in the wrestling ring. Whether he’s sliding around and pratfalling on an oily pathway, going full Rambo-esque survivalist in the woods or holding a tiny-looking iPhone in his monstrously huge hands, he’s never anything other than an engaging and deeply likable comedic presence, even when he’s being a self-righteous douche. Which is often.
There’s also some really good work surrounding Cena in the shape of his fellow smoke jumpers, played by Keegan Michael-Key and John Leguizamo. The former – a sketch show veteran – seemingly improvises furiously for every single one of the 90 minutes and, for the most part, hits consistently on laughs as he does so. Leguizamo, meanwhile, does an impressive cutesy shtick as the in-house cook – he can only cook with tinned Spam – and a man whose constant hours cooped up indoors have given him an impressive level of My Little Pony knowledge. Indeed, if you wanted a clear signal of this movie’s target audience, you need only glance at the level of in-depth MLP lore and the frequency with which characters break into Fortnite dances.
It helps that the three kids are also having the time of their lives. Brianna Hildebrand – last seen as Deadpool‘s Negasonic Teenage Warhead – leads the trio with a smart mouth and a head full of secrets, while Christian Convery is ace as a curious young boy obsessed with the world of the smoke jumpers and Finley Rose Slater plays the sweet, but irritating little girl to perfection. Every plot beat and character turn is predictable and in keeping with convention, but director Andy Fickman – best known for the “yikes” double bill of She’s the Man and Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 – keeps the tone so brisk and fluffy that it’s impossible not to be happy when watching it.
But it’s Cena who elevates this beyond standard issue entertainment. Cena is a comedic treasure who deserves every success that has been awarded to fellow WWE alumni The Rock and Dave Bautista. He’s not just a slapstick powerhouse, but he’s also willing to send up his own persona – wrestling fans will spot his patented “you can’t see me” gesture – and embrace a surprisingly heartfelt vein of emotion in the final moments and his relationship with Judy Greer’s do-gooder scientist.
Playing With Fire as a whole is a sweet-natured, charming comedy that definitely has a warm heart, but it’s Cena who – metaphorically rather than literally, of course – keeps the fire burning.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.