A big blockbuster family movie like Playing with Fire has to get the basics right if it’s going to work. For the most part, the film plays by the numbers which will be enough for the kids to enjoy it. But with a pedestrian script and a poor leading turn, Playing with Fire does its title proud with the concept of a good family movie, and gets burnt in the process by not observing all of the rules and trying to shortcut its way to our hearts.
The plot is relatively simple. As a straight-laced, career-driven head of a Fire & Rescue service, Jake Carson (WWE Superstar John Cena) gets more than he bargained for when he and his crew (Keegan-Michael Key, Tyler Mane and John Leguizamo) are forced to take care of three kids who they just pulled out of a burning building. But rather than be quiet house-guests, the kids have mischief on the minds as they wait to be picked up, and turn Carson’s ordered world upside down.
I’m a big wrestling fan and I appreciate what John Cena is trying to do with his career post-grapple. In the right project, he’s great – see the severely underrated Blockers for proof. But in a bid to become the new Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, it’s clear to see that there’s a gulf that needs to be bridged if he is to enjoy similar big screen success going forward.
Cena isn’t helped with a really poor script that only ever offers shapes of ideas devoid of details and nuance. All of the big action stars made family comedies work in the past. Arnold Schwarzenegger in Kindergarten Cop remains the benchmark for perfect transitions into the genre, but Playing with Fire tries to copy that approach without doing any of the hard work. There’s paper-thin characterisation here so you don’t feel attached to Cena’s Jake Carson in any real way, and that’s the film’s biggest sticking point.
To make up for this, the film has (commendably) padded itself up with great supporting actors who try really hard to elevate the weak script onto a new, more entertaining level. You can almost see the sweat breaking in Keegan-Michael Key and John Leguizamo’s bids to salvage something here. Both are brilliant and deserved a whole lot more.
Elsewhere, the always watchable Judy Greer is great as the token love-interest for the main character, but again deserved a lot more from the script. 24’s President Palmer aka Dennis Haysbert makes a rare big screen appearance here as a Fire Chief looking to appoint a successor and Deadpool’s Brianna Hildebrand has a hard job keeping the peace between the kids and the adults.
It’s not all bad. Like I said, the premise is good if it was handled differently and the strength of the supporting cast means that there are laughs to be had. Some of the gags land where they should and there are scenes of destruction and mayhem that kids will certainly relish and relate too. The action sequences also aren’t bad, with some fire and rescue scenes that do nudge you awake periodically.
The nuts and bolts of a good family movie are here, but sadly Playing with Fire doesn’t know how to assemble a decent film. As a result the film feels forced and painfully short of belly-laughs which is a fundamental requirement of the genre. Offering nothing more than a passing distraction for the kids this festive season, Playing with Fire is a big missed opportunity, especially given the talent involved. It’s a real shame because with a few tweaks this could have been wonderful. Sadly it’s just burnt embers of a more intense fire that raged long ago.
Cast: John Cena, Keegan-Michael Key, John Leguizamo, Judy Greer, Brianna Hildebrand, Christian Convery, Finley Rose Slater, Dennis Haysbert Director: Andy Fickman Writer: Dan Ewen, Matt Lieberman Certificate: PG Duration: 96mins Released by: Paramount Release date: 26th December 2019