REVIEW – ‘Playing With Fire’ is an entirely forgettable film that’s unlikely to become one of your children’s treasured classics

There are comedic films made exclusively for children that respect their young audience enough to refuse to lower their comedy into the gutter to elicit a few cheap laughs. Then there’s something like Playing With Fire that embarrassingly treats children as if they’re entirely too stupid to enjoy anything other than poop jokes and ludicrous slapstick comedy for 96 minutes.

Look, I get there’s absolutely a place for movies crafted just for kids. I was a kid once. I understand. I even invited my two young nephews along to this screening, merely to ascertain some perspective of this film’s potential greatness that may pass over my 30-something-year-old head. In all honesty, I feel somewhat ashamed I subjected these youngsters to a film which seemingly belittled them for an hour and a half.

That being said, most of the kids in the audience laughed when they were meant to and seemed to be having a far greater time than the adults in the crowd. It’s a hefty helping of harmless nonsense and that’s far from the worst thing your kids could be watching. Perhaps Playing With Fire perfectly hits its intended low-brow mark and this cranky critic needs to just leave this film alone.

But one can’t help but feel there are better examples of children’s entertainment out there that will have them rolling in the aisles while also teaching your kids some valuable lessons in the process. We saw that early this year with the surprisingly wondrous Dora and the Lost City of Gold. All they may learn from Playing With Fire is poo is smelly, oil and soap are slippery, and lighter fluid is flammable. Groundbreaking.

Fire Station Superintendent Jake “Supe” Carson (John Cena) is a hardened smoke-jumper (which is definitely not a firefighter, but rather someone who parachutes into wildfires in remote terrain) whose sole focus is his work. A fastidiously by-the-book boss, Supe likes to run a tight ship, overseeing his team of Mark (the ever-reliable Keegan Michael-Key), Rodrigo (John Leguizamo), Axe (an entirely mute Tyler Mane), and their Bullmastiff dog Masher with a firm but fair hand.

While Supe clearly loves his job, it’s evident something is missing in his life, especially after a disastrous attempt at a relationship with nearby toad scientist Dr. Amy Hicks (Judy Greer), which fell apart due to his obsessive dedication to his work. When the team are called out to a blazing cabin fire, Supe rescues a trio of siblings, 16-year-old Brynn (Brianna Hildebrand), 10-year-old Will (Christian Convery), and adorable 3-year-old Zoey (Finley Rose Slater) from certain death.

After Brynn informs Supe their parents are out of town celebrating their wedding anniversary, he begrudgingly agrees to allow them to stay the weekend at the remote fire station, given an incoming storm prevents the children from being transported out. Naturally, the kids are initially on their best behaviour, but it’s not long before all sorts of chaos breaks out.

From here, Playing With Fire jumps from one chaotic scene of mayhem to the next, without any semblance of narrative flow. It’s more akin to a series of The Three Stooges skits where anything that can go wrong does. And then there’s the poop humour. When Zoey does a “boom boom” in her pants, it’s left to Supe to change her. Of course, he does so from the safety of his protective firefighting suit, leading to a moment of projective diarrhea that makes absolutely no logistical sense.

Later, when Supe needs to go to the bathroom in the wilderness, Zoey refuses to be left alone, meaning he’s must hold her and remain eye contact at all times, all while relieving himself. Yeah, that happens. It’s the lowest form of children’s humour that makes Playing With Fire appear to be consistently talking down to children, as if it doesn’t trust youngsters to find humour in anything other than gross-out jokes and slapstick nonsense.

Cena has stated he wanted this film to be a glowing tribute to smoke-jumpers, firefighters, and all first-responders, which would be a wonderfully timely message, especially as Australia heads into an alarming upcoming bushfire season and places like California recover from recent disastrous fires. Yet, by constantly portraying Supe and his deputies as bumbling idiots, it’s hardly showcasing these brave men as the true heroes they really are. Strangely, for a film with “fire” in the title, there’s actually very little firefighting happening at all.

Naturally, it’s expected Playing With Fire highlights how entirely inept these burly men are when it comes to children, but their supposed skills in their chosen elite field are equally played for cheap laughs, crafting a decidedly confusing image of such supposedly impressive figures. The men slip and fall so often, you’d hardly want them to be the ones rescuing you from impending doom.

Rodrigo is initially portrayed as our heroic helicopter pilot, and yet, when he’s called upon to actually fly the chopper, he cowers in the corner. When he finally gets into the cockpit, he incompetently dumps an entire waterbomb on the wrong spot, missing the fire completely. Huh?! It’s truly one of the more confounding moments of the film, casting a very poor shadow on the reputation of smoke-jumpers and firefighters around the globe.

There is a concerted effort by screenwriters Dan Ewen and Matt Lieberman to tackle the very relevant subject of toxic masculinity, as the big tough men of the firehouse learn to loosen up and allow the children to teach them to embrace their softer sides. But the path to this enlightenment is taken by using My Little Pony as the true lightbulb moment to cut through all the testosterone. Frankly, this seems like nothing more than nauseating product placement than anything else.

Following a similar “muscle-man behemoth looks after little children” path of Arnold Schwarzenegger in Kindergarten Cop and Dwayne Johnson in Tooth Fairy, Cena tries his best to elevate Playing With Fire above the doldrums of its woeful screenplay. He’s proven quite adept at comedy in Blockers and Trainwreck, but he had better material to work with in those films. There’s so little for him to do here but he does take his shirt off a good half a dozen times, which seems insanely out of place in a children’s film.

Both Key and Leguizamo are so horribly overqualified for this kind of inane drivel, but they still work overtime to offer something more than cheap laughs. They elevate any scene they’re a part of, but you ultimately feel rather sorry for them for finding themselves stuck in such a disappointing film. Likewise with the luminous Greer whose talent is entirely wasted in a thankless role as the lonely, frog-obsessed love interest. There’s some minor spark between Cena and Greer, but the whole thing feels rather forced and terribly superficial.

The best children’s movies are wise enough to offer something for adults to enjoy as well. Sadly, Playing With Fire seemingly forgets parents and caregivers have to sit through this film as well and grants them absolutely nothing to provide any shred of enjoyment. Even at only 90-odd minutes long, this film feels like a tiresome chore. Yes, it’s fine to craft films exclusively for little ones, but is it asking too much to serve them something that respects their intelligence a little more?

There’s no doubt Playing With Fire has the potential to elicit a few laughs from your kids with tired sight gags and tasteless humour. But it’s ultimately entirely forgettable cinema that’s unlikely to become one of your children’s treasured classics. Case in point; upon my nephew being asked what was his favourite part of the film, he could only respond, “I guess I liked the dog the best.” That says it all really.

Distributor: Paramount
Cast: John Cena, Keenan-Michael Key, John Leguizamo, Brianna Hildebrand, Dennis Haysbert, Judy Greer, Tyler Mane, Christian Convery, Finley Rose Slater
Director: Andy Fickman
Producers: Todd Garner, Sean Robins
Screenplay: Dan Ewen, Matt Lieberman
Cinematography: Dean Semler
Production Design: Brent Thomas
Costume Design: Monique Prudhomme
Music: Nathan Wang

Editing: Elisabet Ronaldsdottir
Running Time: 96 minutes
Release Date: 12th December 2019 (Australia)