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‘Playing with Fire’ a lukewarm family film

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Let’s be clear from the start: John Cena is not The Rock. Nor will he ever be The Rock, no matter how hard he, WWE and/or Hollywood try to make it be so.

And that’s OK. Cena has his own (admittedly limited) charms, both in terms of personality and performance acumen. He’s never going to be the entertainment force that is Dwayne Johnson.

Movies like “Playing with Fire” are an excellent illustration of that truth. While The Rock had his share of kid-friendly outings early in his film career, it was clear even at the time that something larger was looming. Cena simply doesn’t have the same sort of raw charisma.

This isn’t a criticism, really – though it may sound like one. Cena’s performative talents may lag behind his fellow wrestler-turned-actor, but he also has plenty to offer in his own right. He’s got a gift for using his imposing physicality to his benefit, as well as a legitimately good sense of comedic timing and a genuine earnestness – all of which work well in a movie like this one.

Cena plays Jake Carson, the station chief for a crew of smokejumpers – firefighters who parachute into the midst of wildfires to extinguish flames that can’t be reached any other way. Jake is the best of the best, a veritable superhero who is able to get the best out of his men. Nothing matters to him but the job – a job for which he was groomed from a young age by his now-deceased father.

Even when some of his best jumpers leave for another company, Jake is still able to work with the remaining men – omnipresent right-hand man Mark (Keegan-Michael Key, “Dolemite is my Name”), awkward ex-con Rodrigo (John Leguizamo, “The Sun Is Also a Star”) and the silent and imposing Axe (Tyler Mane, “The Silent Natural”) – to get the job done.

When the crew is called to a cabin fire in an isolated area, they spring into action. Jake drops into the fire and rescues three siblings; older sister Brynn (Brianna Hildebrand, “Deadpool 2”), brother Will (Christian Convery, “William”) and younger sister Zoey (Finley Rose Slater in her debut). The initial plan is to keep the kids at the station until the parents can be contacted; the so-called Safe Haven law means that Jake and the team are responsible for the welfare of the kids.

You’ve probably already guessed, but here’s the thing: hijinks ensue.

The station falls into chaos as the kids make themselves at home and explore the many different ways one might get into trouble at a fire station. All this is happening while Jake is trying to put himself forward as the potential successor to Commander Richards (Dennis Haysbert, “Secret Obsession”). Even with the help of wildlife scientist Dr. Amy Hicks (Judy Greer, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?”), Jake and the crew struggle to deal with the children.

But as the picture becomes more and more clear and as Jake allows himself to open up just a little, we’re left to wonder just who rescued who.

“Playing with Fire” isn’t a great movie, but it also isn’t as bad as it might sound. Sure, it’s paint-by-numbers in terms of plot and packed with formulaic moments constructed for optimal emotional manipulation, but it never pretends to be anything other than what it is.

And what it is is a vehicle to showcase John Cena. He might not have the widest acting range, but when he’s allowed to operate within it, he’s entertaining enough. If nothing else, he’s unafraid to let himself be the butt of the joke, which is tougher than you think. The fearless physicality instilled in him by the wrestling ring translates nicely to silver screen slapstick moments. Cena’s real-life affection for children translates as well; his chemistry with his young co-stars is genuine.

There are plenty of over-the-top goofball action set pieces – this is a movie aimed at kids, after all. And there’s enough cartoonish injury and ridiculous behavior to keep the kiddos giggling throughout. The storytelling might not be all that sophisticated, but there’s enough here to keep the youngsters entertained even through the occasional eyerolls from the adults in the room.

Cena’s the star, but he isn’t alone. Key goes for it, a bundle of manic energy whose comedic gifts are present, albeit a bit underutilized. Leguizamo is a bundle of twitches and tics, a charming weirdo. Greer – a wildly underrated comedic actress – breathes life into what could have been a thankless part. The kids are a little inconsistent – Hildebrand is a budding star, but the inexperience of the other two shows occasionally. Of course, they’re both cute and committed to the bit, so it works, especially when they’re alongside Cena, who so clearly enjoys them.

“Playing with Fire” is the kind of genially goofy kiddie fare that will always have a place at the movies. It isn’t going to win any awards and you’ll likely more or less forget about it by the time you get home, but for a piece of family-friendly entertainment, you could do a lot worse. Thanks to Cena and company, you won’t get burned by this one.

[2.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Tuesday, 12 November 2019 07:44

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