Less than a week before seeing this oppressively PG-rated kids’ movie, I was fortunate enough to catch actor John Leguizamo performing his latest one-man show in Chicago, in which he champions putting Latinx history in school text books to make sure that kids see people that look like them as part of history, doing great things throughout the centuries. It’s a great show and a noble cause.
So imagine my shock and horror at seeing him clowning around in Playing with Fire as a member of a rugged crew of firefighters known as Smoke Jumpers (they literally parachute or are lowered directly into a fire situation to help rescue people or put out the fire from its core). And just so I’m clear, everyone in this movie is clowning around; but having just seen Leguizamo be so fantastic, it made it all hurt that much more.
The film centers on by-the-book station superintendent Jake Carson (John Cena, still oversized), whose father died on the job, which gives him even more respect for the job and why the letter of the law must be recognized in his house. Leguizamo, Keegan-Michael Key and Tyler Mane (playing a nearly silent character known as Axe…because he carries an axe all the time; that’s the level of humor we’re dealing with here, people) play his faithful underlings, who are dedicated but still wish their fearless leader would have more of a life outside of the station. He nearly did not too long ago, when he went on two-and-a-half dates (he cut the third date short when he realized it wasn’t working) with local biologist Dr. Amy Hicks (Judy Greer), but panicked when he realized that he liked her and wanted to avoid any personal connections, fearing it would distract him from his work.
On one rescue mission, the team save three kids in a burning cabin, and since it happened just as the weekend was beginning, they have to take care of the kids until their parents return. The great Brianna Hildebrand (Deadpool, Tragedy Girls) plays Brynn, the oldest, who is being shifty about where her parents are exactly, while also attempting to wrangle brother Will (Christian Convery) and younger sister Zoey (Finley Rose Slater) long enough to escape. But the younger two are too busy alternating between causing havoc and being adorable. As if there weren’t enough going on on this particular weekend, the rescue of the kids has put Jake in the spotlight with the fire department commander (Dennis Haysbert) as a possible candidate for his own job when he retires. He’s planning a visit that seems badly timed with when the kids are supposed to leave; one can only wonder if something will go wrong.
I keep looking at the names in this cast and being astonished that such a talented collection of individuals, including a few who are among some of the best improvisers among comedy actors, could have produced such tragically unfunny work. Director Andy Fickman (You Again, Race to Witch Mountain) adds nothing to the comic mix with his limp sense of what is funny and what is simply making faces and screaming and overplaying every allegedly humorous line. It actually hurt my heart a little to see Greer in the middle of this mess, playing a lovesick woman who is easily the smartest person in the room at any given moment but still is saddled with playing surrogate mom to these awful children.
So why did I even give Playing with Fire one star? I’ll admit that there are a collection outtakes that play during the end credits that might be the only thing I laughed at during the entire film, and most of those moments come courtesy of Key, who is also the only actor who almost made me laugh during the actual movie. I happen to think Cena is a normally reliable comedy force (look at his work in Blockers or Trainwreck for evidence of that), but his take on this man torn between duty and living a fulfilling life is stiff and humorless, made all the more worse by these usually funny people just floundering around him. This one hurt my soul a little.
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