Film Review: ‘Playing With Fire’: Four Firemen Find Babysitting Three Kids Challenging

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PG | 1h 36min | Comedy, Family | 8 November 2019 (USA)

Four macho firemen—excuse me, smoke-jumpers (smoke-jumpers hate it when you confuse them with their citified brethren)—get saddled with three kids for a weekend and have to do parenting. Can they handle it? Of course not. And this is your broad-strokes, over-the-top comedy “Playing With Fire,” starring the popular World Wresting Entertainment wrestler and bodybuilder John Cena.

Any good? Good for kids, yup. Good for parents? If you like kids enough to have had kids, yes, you’ll like it too. If you’re a wizened film critic with perennial bed-head who only leaves the apartment to go to film screenings, you won’t like it much.

There’s a Fire!

A giant wildfire tears through Northern California! Roads are backed up with vehicles, smoldering tree limbs are crashing down, smoke is everywhere! “Uptown Funk” by Bruno Mars is on the soundtrack. Wait, what?! Cognitive dissonance! Shhh—it’s meant to let you know this will not be a tragedy. This will be a comedy!

Jake Carson (Cena) is a straight-laced, drill-sergeant type of smoke-jumper superintendent, who likes to run a tight ship—or whatever the smoke-jumping equivalent of a ship is. When there’s a big forest fire somewhere, he leads his men to go jump in it.

Who are the men? They are the giant, bald, bearded, mute, ax-carrying fellow named Axe (Tyler Mane, also a wrestler); the neurotic Mark (Keegan-Michael Key); and the emotional blabbermouth Rodrigo (John Leguizamo).

Soon, there’s a cabin fire out in them thar woods, and big Jake, big Axe, and the smaller jumpers go jump in it. Jake finds two sisters and a brother trapped in the cabin: the oldest, teen sister Brynn (Brianna Hildebrand); classic, annoying little brother Will (Christian Convery); and probably the prettiest, most devastatingly cute, wee girl-child actress to hit the big screen in a long time—Finley Rose Slater, who plays Zoey. I could actually go see the movie again just to yearn for this child: I’ll take that one, please, but could I order her without the screaming and the poopy diapers? No? Sigh.

Back they all go to the firehouse, which, as I mentioned is a tight ship, er, jumper-station. What can three young kids do in a tight jumper-station, staffed with uptight warrior types in need of a womanly touch? Create extreme chaos. And poop.

Firehouse living room
Firehouse living room
(L–R) Tyler Mane, Christian Convery, Keegan-Michael Key, Brianna Hildebrand, John Leguizamo, Finley Rose Slater (back to camera), and John Cena in “Playing With Fire.” (Doane Gregory/Paramount Pictures)

Naturally, the boy child creates the most havoc. I’ve often thought that the best-ever portrayal of a classic, pain-in-the-butt little brother was Cody McMains playing Kirsten Dunst’s brat brother in “Bring It On,” but young Christian Convery comes a close second here. It’s fun for boys!

Like his starting a domino effect of escalating damage, which he tries to clean up, but only makes increasingly worse, resulting in a firehouse garage full of soapsuds six feet high. Imagine playing hide-and-seek in that! Better hide the detergent and the garden hose when you get home.

Fireman and boy in bubble-filled firehouse
Fireman and boy in bubble-filled firehouse
John Cena and Christian Convery in “Playing With Fire.” (Doane Gregory/Paramount Pictures)

Where Are Their Parents?

All the while, Jake’s naturally trying to locate their parents. He’s gotta get these kids the heck outta there, because he’s got a possible promotion coming up. The head honcho smoke-jumper boss (Dennis Haysbert) is coming for inspection, very soon, and Jake needs to rectify all this kid chaos with alacrity.

Think he can do it all by himself? Or rather, with three other lunkheads who know nothing but burning trees, jumping out of planes, and showering the landscape with that pink stuff they pour out of those planes?

Hold on a second—what is that pink stuff they drop on fires? Google Search Results: “What is that red powder that is dropped on fires? Air tankers are often used to drop thousands of gallons of water and retardant onto fires. The red stuff that you often see being dropped from planes and helicopters is a chemical retardant that contains phosphate fertilizer, which helps to slow and cool down the fire.”

Ah. This is why I love my job.

So, can four lunkheads do this job, or do they maybe need a woman? Like, say, Dr. Amy Hicks (Judy Greer), the only woman scientist studying frogs in the vast Californian outback? Did she and Jake perhaps have a date and decide they couldn’t stand each other, except they’re both too awkward and inexperienced in matters of the heart to recognize the chemistry? Hmmm. Here’s another puzzling question? Will Jake eventually transform into super-dad?

Firemen play mega jenga
Firemen play mega jenga
(L–R) Judy Greer, John Cena, John Leguizamo, Finley Rose Slater, and Christian Convery in “Playing With Fire.” (Doane Gregory/Paramount Pictures)


Cena, like Dwayne Johnson before him, and Arnold before that, has biceps the size of watermelons, which means he has to take his body very seriously. But also like Johnson and Ahhh-nuld, he doesn’t take himself seriously at all, which is why his rise in the action-comedy genre has been quick. He’s also clearly a good guy and a fun guy.

Man singing at piano with firemen and small girl
Man singing at piano with firemen and small girl
John Cena (C), and those in the background: (L–R) Finley Rose Slater, Tyler Mane, and Keegan-Michael Key in “Playing With Fire.” (Doane Gregory/Paramount Pictures)

As an adult person, the child-targeted slapstick will make you yawn, but the key to having fun is to listen to the kids in the audience. They’re thinking this is just grand and aren’t you a fun parent to be taking them to see this, and there’s even popcorn. Smiley-face.

Moms will also probably find the watermelon biceps very interesting to look at. As a personal trainer and bodybuilding enthusiast, I was thinking his vascularity is a bit excessive, but maybe that’s splitting hairs.

For dads, let’s just say you will enjoy this adorable Zoey girl-child renaming Jake’s big firehouse dog Masher “Sparkle Pony,” and when she makes tea for big, bad Axe, and they sit there sipping tea together—you will cry.

It brings to mind the popular meme: “When a two-year-old hands you their ringing toy phone, no matter how bad you think you are, you answer it.”

Big bald fireman and tiny girl
Big bald fireman and tiny girl
Tyler Mane and Finley Rose Slater in “Playing With Fire.” (Doane Gregory/Paramount Pictures)

And speaking of crying, don’t forget to stay for the credit-roll and blooper section: When Keegan-Michael Key goes off on an improvised, extended weeping jag wherein he escalates to screaming, and Cena stands there trying not to laugh, you will completely lose it.

Two firemen and small girl
Two firemen and small girl
(L–R) Keegan-Michael Key, Finley Rose Slater, and John Cena in “Playing With Fire.” (Doane Gregory/Paramount Pictures)

’Playing With Fire’
Director: Andy Fickman
Starring: John Cena, Judy Greer, Keegan-Michael Key, John Leguizamo, Dennis Haysbert, Brianna Hildebrand, Tyler Mane
Rating: PG
Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes
Release Date: Nov. 8
Rated: 3 stars out of 5

What do you think?

Written by The Baron

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