Most of what you need to know about Playing with Fire can be summed up in the first two minutes, which feature a team of smokejumpers battling a small forest fire to the tune of “Uptown Funk.” It makes not one lick of sense. It is, by popular music standards, in late middle age, and has nothing to do with fires or fighting or anything vaguely related to the plot. One gets the sense that the opening scene needed a song, “Uptown Funk” is a song that exists, and that is about as much thought as was put into any aspect of this movie.
For the first twenty minutes, or perhaps a half hour—this film feels far longer than 96 minutes has any right to—Playing with Fire can be summed up as “have you heard of smokejumpers before?” It’s important to know that smokejumpers are not the same as firefighters. The difference is, presumably, that smokejumpers fly helicopters and then jump out of them while firefighters do not. If the distinction goes any deeper, I would not know, as the film does not specify.
The painful thing—or more accurately, one of the many painful things—is that there are a lot of funny people in this film. Not that they’re funny here. There are certain things in this world that are beyond salvaging. But, generally speaking, they are funny. Keegan-Michael Key? A very funny person. Judy Greer? A very funny person. John Cena? I’ve seen Blockers; he definitely has it in him. But his performance here as Jake “Supe” (as in “superintendent”) Carson is, in a word, yikes. I won’t say it’s the worst part of the movie because the worst part is the entire thing. That said, remember that alien in a human suit I mentioned earlier? That’s John Cena here. His take on anal-retentive hard-ass is inexplicably manic in a bizarre but desperately unfunny way. It’s like watching a person at 1.5 playback speed in real-time surroundings.
After about half an hour the movie seems to remember that introducing the audience to the term “smokejumper” does not actually count as a plot, at which point it turns into the most tired, generic iteration of the “look, a grown man is terrified of children and domesticity, tee-hee-hee isn’t that funny” I have ever had the misfortune of seeing in my life. Perhaps there are worse out there. In fact, I’m quite certain there must be. I have no children and have no intention of having children, and quite honestly while the dismal state of most children’s programming is not a major factor in determining my stance on the matter, it definitely does contribute.
People like to gush about how children are the future, a precious resource, so on and so forth. Well, the future deserves better entertainment. “They don’t know any better,” you might say. This is a bad excuse. And just think of their parents. Dear god, the parents. I’m no child expert but I know enough to be aware that they don’t usually like things by halves. The latch on and watch stuff over and over and over and over again. I came out of Playing with Fire comfortable in the knowledge that I will never in my life have to see it again. But how many poor unfortunates out there will have a different story? I shudder at the thought.
No part of this film is good. At best, there are places that aspire to benign mediocrity, but the first third or so feels especially agonizing. Especially in the beginning, the movie makes a much of weird little gestures that posture towards being “cinematic”—exaggerated sound effects, odd camera angles—like it’s somehow trying to convince you that the thing you are watching is actually a movie. It works about as well if a person introduced themselves to you as “definitely a person,” which is, of course, the moment you know that you are definitely dealing with an alien in a human suit. An imposter.
Playing with Fire is an imposter. It wants you to believe that it has a story that was composed with some forethought. That it is “entertainment.” That it has some conception of humor or what a teenager sounds like. But these are lies. All lies.
I won’t say there are no redeeming qualities at all, but there are minor and scattered. The toddler is sufficiently precocious. One joke about a child naively presuming an alarm clock is an Amazon Echo is nearly funny. It’s weirdly invested in John Cena taking his shirt off for a PG-rated family film—the man has admittedly nice pecs so in some sense this is a “pro,” but still, a weird flex.
All in all, there is no universe in which Playing with Fire avoids being silly and quite derivative, but neither of these are truly unforgivable sins. While it’s a premise with decidedly limited potential, it could have been something watchable, but terrible writing, utterly bizarre pacing, and thoughtless, rote execution doom it to a far more dismal fate.
Header Image Source: Paramount/Nickelodeon