If movie clichés were flammable, Playing with Fire would go up in a four-alarm blaze. Just about any trope you can imagine gets chucked into the burn pit: You want a chiseled hero with a secret heart of mush? Done. What about a high-strung comedy sidekick who chews up all the scenery? Got it. And three adorable John Hughes ragamuffins? You can bet your burnin’ biscuits they’re in here. So much effort gets heaved into this movie, like desperate buckets of water. Unfortunately, the whole thing still ends in a dripping, soot-stained disaster anyway.
Playing with Fire wasn’t written, it was constructed out of parts from a cinematic junk drawer. Jake Carson (John Cena) heads up an elite team of smoke jumpers somewhere out in mountain country. Whenever a fire rages, Jake rappels in like the Brawny Towel Man and saves the day. His subordinates consist of stock characters: We get the hyperactive comic relief (Keegan-Michael Key), the less-funny comic relief (John Leguizamo), and the not-funny-at-all comic relief (Tyler Mane, playing mute). Jake dreams of a big promotion that would make his late dad proud. (An obvious cliché.) He also keeps a quirky love interest (Judy Greer) at arm’s length, supposedly to keep focused on his advancing career. (Another dead and dry cliché. This movie would be an inferno within the first ten minutes.)
Jake gets knocked flat onto his toned glutes when he rescues three plucky kids from a burning cabin. Teenage Brynn (Brianna Hildebrand) serves as the headstrong leader of the trio. Will (Christian Convery) fills the role of bratty, obnoxious middle child. Baby Zoey (Finley Rose Slater) completes this trio of walking, talking tropes, as the precious toddler. Zoey’s main functions are to wobble about, babble cute nonsense, and occasionally shit her pants. That’s right, gang: If you wanna plunk down $10 for diarrhea jokes, this movie’s got ’em.
I spent most of Playing with Fire‘s runtime trying to figure out whose talent gets wasted more, Judy Greer or Keegan-Michael Key. Greer projects so much warmth and likability, she seems ported in from a different, better movie. Anybody who’s seen Key in anything knows how damn funny he is, but this limp material forces him into desperate overacting. After all that debate, I scanned the credits to find that Oscar-winning cinematographer Dean Semler provided the beautiful imagery this film doesn’t deserve. After his work on The Road Warrior and Dances with Wolves, that’s the biggest waste of talent on display.
As for Cena, he does a fine job stepping into the type of role that used to get played by Howie Long or Hulk Hogan. He clenches his jaw and barks his lines with great conviction. He rips his shirt off and growls in a way you just can’t teach. I have no doubt that someday he’ll graduate up to Dwayne Johnson’s level of burly action hero. It just won’t be today.
Even at 96 minutes, Playing with Fire moves like molasses in the tundra. You know where this trail of horse puckey eventually leads, but it’s a long, stinky crawl to get there. The most telling thing about this movie lies in the end-credit blooper reel. Actors stumble over terrible lines like drunken hurdlers. The dialogue feels clunky and they know it. Ultimately, it just proves that no amount of acting talent could keep a dumpster like this from bursting into flames.
96 min. PG.