Review: Firefighters (and John Cena) deserve better than lowbrow comedy ‘Playing With Fire’

John Cena, holding Christian Convery, is covered in and surrounded by soap bubbles in a scene from "Playing with Fire."
John Cena, left, and Christian Convery in “Playing With Fire.”
(Doane Gregory/Paramount Pictures)

In 2017, Joseph Kosinski directed “Only the Brave,” a studious and searing depiction of wildland firefighting. It’s an honest and unflinching account of the training, tactics and bravery, and sheer sacrifice required to do such a job, one that has only become more crucial as climate change-enhanced wildfires ravage California. It was a criminally underseen film that more people should seek out this weekend, rather than subject themselves and their loved ones to the surreal, fecal-flecked nonsense that is “Playing with Fire.” It’s a family comedy about wildland firefighters, or “smokejumpers,” who gain a little levity in their lives thanks to a trio of mischievous kids.

The Los Angeles air was redolent with the smell of smoke the morning “Playing with Fire” screened, creating a full-on sensory experience. When the film opens on a group of motorists trapped on a mountain road, surrounded by fire, it’s almost horrific. But then, Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk” kicks in. “It’s too hot, hot damn,” Mars croons as star John Cena, playing Supervisor Jake Carson, calls in a drop of fire retardant, grabs a flaming branch, fends off a lusty wife and steps aside to let a small child run face-first into the side of a minivan. It’s so strange it’s positively Lynchian.

Directed by Andy Fickman and written by Dan Ewen and Matt Lieberman, “Playing with Fire” shoots for slapstick but lands squarely in the surreal. Supervisor Jake, known as Supe, is a highly controlled man in charge of a motley crew of smokejumpers who have their world turned upside down by the young siblings they rescue from a burning cabin. The quartet of macho men is no match for sarcastic teen Bryn (Brianna Hildebrand), wily Will (Christian Convery) and adorable Zoey (Finley Rose Slater), but it sure seems like everyone’s going to dig deep and learn a few important lessons along the way.

Or at least that’s the vaguely sketched idea one gleans from among all the physics-defying bathroom jokes and “My Little Pony” references. Cena, taking cues from Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in crafting his star trajectory from WWE to the big screen, relies on the amusing juxtaposition between big dude and little kid. He brings a sort of energetically rubber-faced performance style that is certainly effortful enough. Cena doesn’t seem to realize he’s funnier when he’s not trying as hard, but everyone in “Playing with Fire” is trying very, very hard, especially Keegan-Michael Key, putting in overtime to bring some real humor to the affair.

Fickman’s directing is uninspired at best, barely competent at worst. The framing and composition is dire; there’s no sense of rhythm or flow, and characters constantly appear and disappear at random. But it’s the writing that truly fails the film and characters. There’s no set-up, so when things go kiddie haywire, we have no context for who the characters are and how they might react. It’s all random and unearned, so it makes sense that most of the humor involves spraying or splattering Supe with excrement or lighter fluid or soap or fire extinguisher spray: All the more opportunity for Cena to take off his shirt.

“Playing with Fire” is harmless enough, a lighthearted romp about tough guys learning to let their guard down. But it relies on tired, lowbrow comedy tropes and is executed so poorly that it’s not worth the effort. Haven’t firefighters had it hard enough this fall?


Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.

‘Playing With Fire’

Rated: PG ,for rude humor, some suggestive material and mild peril

Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes

Playing: In general release