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"PLAYING WITH FIRE"
(2019) (John Cena, John Leguizamo) (PG)


Read Our Full Content Movie Review for Parents

QUICK TAKE:
Comedy: A crew of four manly firefighters has to take care of a teenage girl and her kid siblings after rescuing them from a cabin fire.
PLOT:
Jake (JOHN CENA) is a career firefighter who commands an elite squad of "Smoke Jumpers," who rappel into wildfire situations to rescue victims and help in containing the blazes. His team includes Mark (KEENAN-MICHAEL KEY), a former accountant-turned-fireman; Rodrigo (JOHN LEGUIZAMO), a former convicted criminal who's turned his life around having joined the department; and Axe (TYLER MANE), a hulking firefighter who carries an ax with him wherever he goes and communicates mostly with a series of grunts.

When Jake's boss, Commander Richards (DENNIS HAYSBERT), announces he will be retiring soon, Jake immediately dreams of succeeding him and fulfilling a dream his late father had for him to be the top boss. But this coincides with Jake and his crew having to care for three kids they recently rescued from a cabin fire who are without parents. Teenage Brynn (BRIANNA HILDEBRAND) has been caring for her two younger siblings, Will (CHRISTIAN CONVERY) and Zoey (FINLEY ROSE SLATER), hoping to avoid a foster care system that would surely separate them.

The longer the kids spend with the Smoke Jumpers, the more attached they get. Meanwhile, Jake carries on a tentative flirtation with a local wildlife expert, Dr. Amy Hicks (JUDY GREER). He feels the pull of a quieter domestic life. But he only knows firefighting and he wants badly to be Commander Richards' permanent replacement, which may not happen with Zoey's diapers to change and Will nearly destroying his station garage.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
I saw "Playing With Fire" with a LOT of kids. And I've found over the years that children are actually the best critics when it comes to children's movies, not stuffy, older dudes like me. They're unfiltered. If something's not working in a film or doesn't make sense, they'll call it out much to their parents' or caregivers' chagrin. Similarly, if the film is just boring to them -- a film made by adults who think they know what kids want to see and are wrong -- you'll get much yawning, jostling, moving about the theater. It makes my job a bit easier.

So, what were the kiddies' reactions during "Playing With Fire," and how does it play into my general criticism of the flick? Look, the film is good, clean, innocuous fun with no profanity, hard violence, or sex (although you do see John Cena shirtless quite a bit you're welcome, moms). But it is relentlessly predictable. How predictable? Multiple kids were calling out character choices and even lines of dialogue before they happened on screen. This just didn't happen a couple of times or even a handful. It happened a LOT! And when a child can see something coming from one scene away, believe me, an adult can see things that are coming in this film from six or seven or more scenes away!

And that's not good. It adds a layer of tedium that didn't need to be there. Now, is the bigger issue in this case the by-the-numbers screenplay and filmmaking, or the fact that half a theater full of little ones were not being quiet while a movie was showing? I leave that for the sociologists. For what it's worth, most of the kids in the audience laughed very hard when Cena got splattered in the face with poop when trying to change a diaper, and they really loved it when Cena kept sending poop emojis to a woman he's texting for a dinner date thinking they are little chocolate desserts.

So, the flick plays well to its target audience.

Cena stars as Jake, a career California firefighter who is in charge of an elite (er, not in this case) group of firemen known as "Smoke Jumpers." These are the guys (sorry, ladies, the film ain't "woke" in this regard) who rappel into dangerous wildfires to save people stranded and help contain the blazes. When they are through, children want to hug and high-five them and women want to leave their husbands for them. The film even christens them "superheroes," especially when it takes all of two minutes of screen time to get the latest wildfire under control. Take that smoldering, real-life Golden State! I was an acolyte when I was a boy, and I had more trouble extinguishing the church altar's two candles than these guys have putting out a major forest blaze in this film.

I digress.

At any rate, Jake and his crew rescue Brynn, a teenage girl (Brianna Hildebrand from the "Deadpool" movies), and her two younger siblings, Will and Zoey, from a cabin fire a bit later. With their parents having left Brynn in charge while they went for an overnight date, it falls on the firehouse crew -- which includes goofy Mark (Keegan-Michael Key) and even goofier Rodrigo (John Leguizamo) -- to care for the three kids under state law.

We soon learn, of course, that their parents died a couple of years earlier, and the siblings have run away from foster care rather than be permanently separated. They were squatters in that cabin. So, now, Jake and Co. have to take care of them until Child Protective Services arrives in a few days. And a firehouse is pretty much the least child-proof place on Earth to form a surrogate family with its fire simulator room, its tool room, and four idiots (Tyler Mane's grunting, largely wordless Axe -- think Non from "Superman" and "Superman II" -- rounds out the crew) in charge.

Yes, "Playing With Fire" is one of those movies where the adult characters have to be darn-near imbeciles in order for the plot to be stretched to 90 minutes. Basically, these men who have been trained to deal with the public -- everyone from infants to the elderly -- see a teenager girl, an 8-year-old boy, and a 4-year-old girl as aliens with no clue as to how to care for them. The concept worked in "Three Men and a Baby" because the guys were dedicated bachelors, who didn't want their lifestyles interrupted (but still had basic nurturing skills). And it worked in "Full House," because there was at least the experienced dad present with the two idiot uncles.

The film's B plot is Jake going for a promotion that would make his late father -- a department legend -- proud. Will the kids do things that could potentially scuttle that promotion? Will Jake get the promotion and then have to ponder what's really important in life? Will the closing credits blooper reel be funnier than anything in the actual movie itself? Ah if only life 15 to 30 minutes at a time from now could be this safe and predictable. I give the film a score of 4 out of 10. (T. Durgin)




Reviewed November 2, 2019 / Posted November 8, 2019


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