PLAYING WITH FIRE — 3 STARS
It takes a special kind of actor to perform against poop and children. The act of pretending to smell something awful in an entertaining fashion in a movie for scent-less audiences is a more challenging trick to hone as an actor than one realizes. Put that skill right next to being a believable cryer. For another fun deception, take someone is adorable with kids and get them to pretend to not be that way convincingly.
Sure, the Nickelodeon content of Playing With Fire isn’t exactly high art from family film vet director Andy Fickman, but it still requires effort and commitment. It’s all about being able to make a fool of yourself. In this new movie, that’s precisely the wide-open willingness of John Cena, Keegan-Michael Key, John Leguizamo, and the rest of this playful ensemble. A godly Daniel Day-Lewis would never lower himself to do this kind of movie, and probably for good reason. However, deep down, it would be astonishing to see him try because even dumb comedy is harder than it looks. Leave it to the meatballs.
The 16-time WWE champion and emerging movie star headlines as the straight-laced Superintendent Jake Preston of the Redding, California division of “smokejumper” firemen for the forest service. He is backed by his loquaciously animated second-in-command Captain Mark Taylor (Key), the loyal underachieving cook and backup pilot Rodrigo Torres (Leguizamo), and the mute mountainous growl of Ax (Tyler Mane of the original X-Men). “Supe,” as this squad calls him, lives up to that billing with sensational heroism time and again battling blazes. Jake, a second-generation smokejumper, is all about the job. His mantra is “Proper Presentation Prevents Poor Performance.” Supe accepts no shenanigans as he eyes a promotion to replace the retiring Commander Richards (Dennis Haysbert).
With a “timber!” crash of flaming conifers, the hijinks fall to Jake and his reduced personnel when they rescue three wayward kids from a cabin fire. Thanks to the Safe Haven Law, the teenaged Brynn (Brianna Hildebrand from the Deadpool series), tween Will (Christian Convery) and toddler Zoey (newcomer Finley Rose Slater) need to remain at the fire station over the weekend until family or social services retrieve them. Needless to say, caring for children puts these macho men out of their element. And, without some mutual niceties, help is not coming from “only female for miles” resident scientist Dr. Amy Hicks (Judy Greer, smiling but in a thankless love interest role).
LESSON #2: KIDS CAN SEE THROUGH CONSEQUENCES AND HOLLOW THREATS —
Naturally, the conundrums and catastrophes pile quickly. One can have all the beefy muscles or loud yelling power they want. If they give an inch, a kid will take a mile. Brynn, Will, and Zoey run roughshod over this crew with their “misuse of resources” to easy enjoyment. After all, every parent will tell you containing kids is like containing a fire. Pass the axes and hoses.
LESSON #3: LOOSEN UP YOUR FORCEFULNESS — The response to Lesson #2 is to limit the damage to inches instead of miles. One can be disciplined and still allow for fun. One can be composed and still show their feelings and emotions. People like being around people. Some of that vaunted guard has to come down as the kids become a confidence boost and heart floater for Jake. Crying can still be hunky. Like a Disney movie, these aren’t lofty ideals, but we still need a certain buff main character to figure these out in endearing fashion.
Certainly, not all of the gags work. This can be one of those movies where all the big laughs are in the trailers. Commendably so, all of the action shot by Oscar winner Dean Semler (Dances With Wolves) is made adorable for its target audience and the goal of a squeaky clean and very welcome PG rating. Folks aren’t coming to a Nickelodeon movie for compelling valor. That’s what Only the Brave is for. Playing With Fire is here for the fun, so let that be the frontline objective.
The critic has often said “Dwayne Johnson makes everything better.” John Cena can’t match that automatic level yet, but you know who does? The emphatic talker Keegan Michael-Key. His gift of gab here as the sneaky assistant mouthpiece and tone policeman is downright hilarious. The energy and zest he and John Leguizamo bring as the screw-looses to Cena’s straight man is remarkable. For that to work, you still need a good straight man.
Anyone who has seen John Cena hamming it up, getting slimed, or both at his hosting gigs or talk show appearances knows he has the capacity to be the ripped glute of many a joke. Anyone who has followed his massive work with The Make-A-Wish Foundation knows he’s got a genuine and gigantic heart. John Cena is cut with cuteness and has all the charm necessary for Playing With Fire. The fact Cena can squeeze heartfelt smiles and laughs, whether covered in some mess or wearing a My Little Pony half-shirt, is more than good enough for a family-friendly movie option for the upcoming holiday season.
LOGO DESIGNED BY MEENTS ILLUSTRATED (#836)