Even the outtakes that accompany the final credits are unfunny in “Playing With Fire,” a family movie of the sort that gives family movies a bad name. The abysmal comedy about a by-the-book smoke jumper—an “extreme” forest firefighter—mellowed by an encounter with three orphan siblings seems particularly tasteless given the current outbreak of destructive wildfires in California.
The brawny hero, Jake “Supe” Carson, is played by John Cena, a professional wrestler who’s trying to follow in the footsteps of Dwayne Johnson as a big-screen action star. Jake, whose father was a legendary smoke jumper, presides over a small outpost where—after some recent defections—he presides over a crew of three loyal underlings, nervous Mark (Keegan-Michael Key), garrulous Rodrigo (John Leguizamo) and silent giant Axe (Tyler Mane). He’s a spit-and-polish guy entirely devoted to his job, hoping to be chosen by imperious Commander Richards (Dennis Haysbert) as his successor.
In his latest heroic exploit, Jake rescues three youngsters—teen Brynn (Brianna Hildebrand) and her younger siblings Will (Christian Convery) and Zoey (Finley Rose Slater)—from a burning cabin. Informed by his superiors that he’ll have to keep the youngsters at his station until their parents can retrieve them, Jake tries to maintain discipline, but of course the kids prove too much to handle and various little disasters occur even as he’s trying to keep things running smoothly in preparation for an inspection visit from Richards.
There’s a predictable subplot in the presence of Dr. Amy Hicks (Judy Greer), the local ecologist who shows up to demand Jake’s signature on an agreement not to use water from a nearby lake in his firefighting. In the by-the-numbers screenplay by Dan Ewen and Matt Lieberman, she’s the obvious romantic interest for Jake, although it takes a long while for him to loosen up enough to make an advance.
That mellowing process, of course, is the result of his interaction with the kids, who despite all the trouble they cause are supposed to be so lovable that they bring out his paternal side. (We’re also meant to laugh at their playing not so much with fire, but all sorts of potentially dangerous things, like nail guns.) The process is accelerated when he finds out that they’re orphans who ran away when they were about to be separated by CPS. What follows—after a supposedly exciting sequence in which the kids, threatened with CPS intervention, attempt an escape, giving Jake another opportunity to show his mettle—is predictable, in terms of the impression he makes on both Hicks and Richards.
“Playing With Fire” was made in connection with Nickelodeon, the kids’ cable network with which Cena has developed a relationship, and it plays like three of Nick’s more uninspired live-action series string together. The script is awful, with the jokes and visual gags falling flat, especially as directed with a heavy hand by Andy Fickman and edited with a jerky stop-and-start rhythm by Eisabet Ronaldsdóttir, and the production is glossily second-rate, with cinematography by Dean Semler that’s pedestrian at best.
And what of the cast? Cena manages the action stuff and a plethora of slapstick pratfalls well enough—the legacy of his time in the ring, no doubt—but he’s mostly stiff and halting in his delivery of dialogue (most of it bad anyway). By contrast Key and Leguizamo play frantic in an effort to wring some laughs from the dreadful material they’re given (a running joke about Rodrigo’s habit of coming up with bad quotations is especially lame); the result is embarrassing for them both. Greer and Haysbert are wasted in stock parts, while the children—who are supposed to be endearing—mostly register as irritating.
Rather than plunking down your money to see it in a theatre, you’d be better off waiting to see “Playing With Fire” when it arrives on Nickelodeon—which it will probably do in relatively short order. Well, perhaps not better off—you’ll still have to sit through the dismally unfunny movie. But the commercials will provide some respite, and your wallet will be fuller.