COVID Catch-Up Review: Playing with Fire should be burned

John Cena in Playing with Fire

Though it was released last November, Playing with Fire makes for strangely apt not-quite-entertainment during these days of home quarantine. Like most of us the last week, it spends 95% of its time confined to the rooms of a single space; pretty much all that happens is eating, shitting, cleaning, watching TV, and an occasional mindless game; and goddamn is it dull. But at least it eats up an hour-and-a-half, so here we are.

John Cena stars in the thankless role so often asked of a muscleman-turned-actor: gruff tough-guy who learns to loosen up when he’s forced to be a child caretaker. (Catch Dave Bautista in My Spy, in theaters later this year!) He plays “Supe” Carson, the commanding superintendent of a California company of “smokejumpers”—remote firefighters specially trained to drop in and contain forest fires. We’re shown their brave work in an opening scene in which some motorists have, with bizarre calm and to the tune of Uptown Funk (even more bizarrely), accepted that they’re going to die in a raging woodland inferno. Luckily, Supes and his team—Keegan Michael Key, John Leguizamo, and Tyler Mane, who’s very clearly become Richard Moll—show up to save the day.

Back at the station that is very nearly the only set built for this visibly dirt-cheap production, the film lays out all its characters and major plot points in its only instance of merciful brevity. Supes is gunning for a promotion and has a thing for Judy Greer’s nearby toad scientist. Leguizamo wrongly attributes quotes and is a poor cook (Spam! LOL!). Key is desperately going as big as possible in a futile attempt at wringing a laugh out of this thing. (He doesn’t, but he unfortunately does succeed in his other role of constantly pointing out Leguizamo’s failings to the audience.) Mane doesn’t speak, carries around an axe, and also is tall. Whoops, and there’s another nearby forest fire! Soak it in, because that’s the last time these smokejumpers do any smokejumping in this movie’s entire strained 89 minutes (not counting the after-the-movie bloopers, because of course it has those.)

The crew arrive at a flaming cabin and Supe manages to rescue a trio of kids—teenage Brynn (Brianna Hildebrand), tween Will (Christian Convery), and nearly three-year-old Zoey. Their parents are apparently not able to get back up the mountain due to a storm, and as Key explains, safe-haven laws state that their brigade must now care for the kids until the parents can get there. (Note: that is not exactly what safe-haven laws are about, but whatever.) Playing with Fire’s take on its well-worn premise is the thinnest, most low-stakes, pointless variant imaginable: four men taking care of three fairly well-behaved kids for a single fucking weekend of nearly never even leaving the house.

Yet, somehow, these dudes are so upset that the teenage girl is sort of sarcastic that, within moments of their arrival, Key calls upon the station’s giant dog, Masher, to maul the children. The dog charges forth but, just short of reaching them, stops and licks Zoey’s hand. The crew is appalled. The joke being… the guys can’t believe they didn’t get to see a Bullmastiff brutally murder some kids? Sure!

But while the writers do manage to weirdly sneak a FUPA reference in there, the rest of the script is nowhere near so WTF-worthy. It’s just bad—all wrongheaded cartoon slapstick (slipping around on oil, being lashed around by a firehose, etc.), the kind of “um… seriously?” crap that makes for so many a “funny” television commercial, and a little cloying sentiment for when Supe inevitably learns to soften up.

For a movie about taking care of little things, Playing with Fire sure doesn’t bother tending to any of its own details. It’s absolutely riddled with arbitrary, sometimes confounding discrepancies and utter nonsense at every step. Early on, to needlessly explain why there are free beds for the kids in the place, half of Supe’s crew declares (paraphrased), “We’re reassigning ourselves to a different company effective immediately, as is apparently how jobs work in this world.” Amidst a date between Supe and Toad Scientist (the date is still somehow in the fireman prison, because fuck paying for another location), Brynn quietly tells our hero how he should invite her to stay the night—not to have sex, but because she shouldn’t be driving home in “the middle of the night”; moments later, we’re informed that stores are still open for another hour. After a brief chase that sees Supe in pursuing his runaway charges on a little girl’s bike (yes, exactly like Goonies, right down to him launching off one of the Pacific Northwest’s beautifully wooded cliffs), he announces that they’ve somehow journeyed so far that, though it’s still visibly daytime, they’ll have to camp because it’s too dangerous to hike at night.

That sort of logicless time dilation extends to the editing of the film, too. This is a comedy stretched to its absolute limits, all for a movie that shouldn’t have hit theaters to hit the bare minimum length to hit theaters. It asks, “How long could we possibly stretch a scene in which a toddler inexplicably is able to shit up John Cena’s shirt sleeve, around his elbow, up his shoulder, and into his face?” It answers, “Painfully long. Not as relentlessly long as we’re gonna stretch out the joke that these tough guys like My Little Pony, but long.”

Were it not such dismissable garbage, it would make you rage-scream with how lazy it is at practically every level. In a rare instance of the team leaving their firehouse purgatory to visit a department store, the behind-the-camera crew doesn’t bother to light it. And what’s odder, they also don’t even color correct it, so what’s meant to be a fun shopping montage is muddied in a green fluorescent haze. When Cena is meant to be playing a piano, the filmmakers leave in a wide shot where you can see Supe is barely moving his hands. Another case of needing to draw out every scene and every shot as much as possible? Or maybe they just realized that no one subjecting themselves to Playing with Fire is going to give a shit either.

Playing with Fire poster

But as much as it’s a tedious, joyless, unambitious failure, there’s something to be said for its purity in being exactly what it is. Just a glance at its poster and you can guess what Playing with Fire will be, and, while “0% contained,” it is 100% as expected from start to finish. By its midpoint, you can say with certainty, “This will unquestionably end with an epilogue where we see Supe and Judy Greer are now married with the kids running around their house.” You won’t be wrong.

Even the creative team on this pap is spot-on perfect. One of its writers has no prior experience; the other previously wrote Dr. Dolittle: Tail to the Chief; and director Andy Fickman made Dwayne Johnson ’n’ kids pictures The Game Plan and Race to Witch Mountain. If that isn’t a recipe for an amateurish muscular-guy-tends-children flick that looks and feels like a straight-to-video comedy sequel, what is?

Late in Playing with Fire, celebrating the little moppet’s third birthday, Supe asks, “What’s everybody doing standing around? Who wants to party!?” Bafflingly, by “party,” it turns out he means play some version of dodgeball with no rules so that it isn’t even a game. Completely inane and with little internal logic, party dodgeball is a perfect microcosm of this entire dumb movie.

Grade: D

Playing with Fire
Andy Fickman
Studio: Paramount
Runtime: 96 minutes
Rating: PG
Cast: John Cena, Keegan-Michael Key, Judy Greer, John Leguizamo, Brianna Hildebrand, Tyler Mane, Dennis Haysbert

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