Directed By Andy Fickman
Starring – John Cena, Judy Greer, Keegan-Michael Key
The Plot – When straight-laced fire superintendent Jake Carson (Cena) and his elite team of expert firefighters (Key, John Leguizamo and Tyler Mane) come to the rescue of three siblings (Brianna Hildebrand, Christian Convery and Finley Rose Slater) in the path of an encroaching wildfire, they quickly realize that no amount of training could prepare them for their most challenging job yet; babysitters. Unable to locate the children’s parents, the firefighters have their lives, jobs and even their fire depot turned upside down and quickly learn that kids, much like fires, are wild and unpredictable.
Rated PG for rude humor, some suggestive material and mild peril
– Tonal capacity. While there are very few positives about this movie, its channeling of the proper tonal structure is one that easily masters the level of fun and hijinks that transpire throughout the film. This isn’t a film that is even remotely serious, with no antagonist or major conflict of any kind, instead taking ample amounts of screen time to flesh out its slapstick sequences and wacky atmosphere in and out of the fire station that constantly keeps the pacing fluidly moving. This being a Nickelodeon Pictures production, the third big screen release of the year for said company, they’ve managed a level of consistency within their pictures, good or bad, that hammer home a pre-established continuity in genre that makes it a sure thing for families alike.
– Lots of heart. Even if this subplot was sloppily telegraphed in the way it was rendered the longer the film transpired, the third act gives way to a fine amount of dramatic sentimentality that really sent audiences home with a feel-good kind of conclusion. With kids being a central theme throughout the movie, it’s no surprise that their influence not only transforms the crew towards a family-first initiative, but also presents the audience with a firm message of commentary on investing too much into a career. The youths within the film really are the note of much-needed clarity that the storytelling and characters lean heavily on, making them feel a level of importance to a film that Nickelodeon has no problem elaborating on.
– One good set piece. As you will come to find out later, there is very little depiction of this crew in the heat of their element on the job, but the one chance we do get provides some surprisingly beneficial results in enveloping visuals. For one, the fire itself in frame is enveloping, surrounding Cena like a shadow, and giving way to the minimal time window that the guys have in rescuing these children. On top of this, the scene is shot wide enough to accurately convey the devastation in scale that conveys there being no way to salvage this location. It illustrates urgency in a way that stands as the biggest ‘What if’ to a movie that should’ve focused on combining the realism of the profession with the majority of the child audiences, who have never been this close to the danger in the shows and films that they are used to.
– Wasted ensemble. There’s plenty of talent here in name-power to be admired, but what’s disappointing is how the direction stunts their abilities in a way that is truly appalling. On a whole, everyone overacts to the point of their characters feeling like a Saturday Night Live skit, hammering home subtlety to the point of it being as loud as a marching band. Individually is no better, as Cena takes a role that offers him no complexity or challenge in illustrating something fresh for the action star. In addition, Key does his usual animated repetition in dialogue that gets tiring around twenty minutes in, and my oh my, what has this movie done to one of my favorite actors, in John Leguizamo? When John’s character isn’t crying or acting as the fire station kitchen maid, his delivery overshoots its intended destination every single time, bringing out the true desperation of the material that makes one of the funniest men on the planet virtually unnoticed. The child actors, minus Brianna Hildebrand, lack any kind of personality or appeal that craft them as anything but a cute face to make audiences go “Awwwww”. There’s times when they look directly at the camera, others when their line reads are virtually mumbled, and others when even five minutes of freedom from them can do so much to open up the appeal of the film. It’s a losing effort all around, made even worse by the fact that not one of them is deserving of a reputable recognition.
– Humorless. Yes, there’s comedy throughout, but its the tasteless kind that involves no imagination to sell it. Fart jokes with juicy noises, slapstick physical humor so manufactured that it comes off as a cartoon, and without question the most disgusting poop joke, that is only there to give us a reason to see John Cena shirtless. The unfortunate thing is this movie knows its audience to the point that it knows it will succeed in most of these gags, but for me I couldn’t escape this overwhelming feeling of classlessness that reached for the lowest hanging fruit time-and-time-again, resulting in eye-rolling so much that nearly made me blind. This is a fine example of kids being treated like idiots in cinema, and the more we approve of it by giving them the intended reaction, the more of these tasteless offerings we will be presented with.
– Lack of believability. This is essentially everywhere. From the lack of believing in these characters as firefighters, with the way they lack smart phone intelligence or have difficulty doing the most basic tasks in their jobs, to the complete lack of firefighting sequences throughout the movie, there was never a second where I was able to give in and believe that this crew was who they said they were. For a movie called “Playing With Fire”, there’s so little of it in the movie that these characters could’ve easily been a part of any other profession, and left the dangerous stuff with the movies that use it to amplify the tension and vulnerability of its characters. This one has one sequence at the very beginning of the movie, and then give their crew the longest extended vacation in firefighting history. Probably appropriate considering their chief can’t distinguish between a poop emoji and chocolate ice cream.
– Meandering musical score. The work by composer Nathan Wang is every bit as obvious as it is uninspiring, etching out a series of musical enhancements that could’ve doubled for studio stock compositions from a Windows Media program of sampled music. It’s complacent when it needs to be inspirational, and corny when alluding to sneaky hijinks taking place somewhere in the scene. This element more than any within the production gave this a familiarity within the realm of television that is known for phoning things in. Not to take away from Wang’s other work in such prestigious films like “Rumble In the Bronx” or “She’s The Man”, but he’s certainly not involving enough energy here to make these scenes pop in a way that duplicates the range in atmosphere. Comedies don’t have to phone in their scores, as evidenced by last year’s “Game Night”. It just takes a composer who allows his instruments to lose themselves within the element of the scene, instead of just underlying what’s transpiring in the most meandered way possible.
– Cheap special effects. This is entirely in the area of post-production computer generation, which outlines as much obviousness as Katt Williams jumping out of a Lucky Charms box. Two such examples exist in this film; one that was prominent in the trailers for the film, where the little girl halts the charge of a vicious dog coming her way, and the other involving the little boy swinging from a fire hose. On the former, the dog is so obviously looking at a trainer who is much taller than the little girl, and his halting is obviously two cuts spliced together to form one intendedly cohesive movement. It doesn’t work, and comes across with a complete lack of naturalism that is fumbled in execution. As for the fire hose sequence, it’s not as bad as the former, but shot close enough and saturated with enough computer influence to keep it from looking like anything other than a toddler swinging on a rope with pressure three times as strong as his grip. It’s the shoddy side of filmmaking that completely breaks investment into the film, rendering it with a level of amateur that stands out for all of the wrong reasons.
– Unoriginal. Let’s be honest, we’ve seen this formula a hundred times. Hell, we’ve even seen it duplicated from this very director. Fickman is the same man who directed The Rock’s tough-guy-turned-soft transformation in Disney’s “The Game Plan”, and even when that premise felt anything but original in 2006, it’s virtually its own subgenre by 2019. Films like these are a dime a dozen, and can easily be articulated to a tee with a trailer that hits the familiar beats and tropes of a movie like “The Pacifier”, which served as a wall-breaking vehicle for Vin Diesel to break being typecast. As I previously mentioned, this film doesn’t manage to do the same for Cena, and thanks to a screenplay that has the same direction but in a fireman capacity, it doesn’t translate to being anything beyond more of the same.
– Predictable. Within fifteen minutes of this movie, I managed to accurately predict every single resolution that was inevitable, and what’s even more surprising is how satisfied the film is with the nature of that obviousness. I say this because there are no curve balls thrown in the conflicts, nor is there even an attempt at using its minutes for anything other than a series of montages showing these big name actors invading a toy store, or having a game of dodgeball right there in the station. I mentioned earlier of a subplot that is easily more telegraphed the longer it goes on, and it all leads to a plot twist that was not only what I predicted a half hour earlier, but also produced no shortage of questions about the twist that the movie never properly addresses. “Playing With Fire” is the kind of film that you already know what is going to happen even if you’ve never seen it, ultimately giving you the perfect alibi not to see it.
My Grade: 3/10 or F+