Released: 12th December
Seen: 16th December
When a wrestler decides to transition from the world of wrestling to the world of acting, at some point they will be required to make a very stupid children’s movie in order to prove their marketability to all ages. Hulk Hogan did this throughout the 90s with films like Suburban Commando, Mr. Nanny and Santa with Muscles. Before he was headlining what felt like every single major motion picture released, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was filling the late 2000s with films like The Game Plan or Tooth Fairy. Now it seems the mantle of “Wrestler who appears in bad children’s movies” has fallen upon the obscenely oversized shoulders of John Cena, who I thought had gotten past this period in the Wrestler turned Actor trajectory. I mean, he should be beyond needing to do that, he was in Ferdinand which was genuinely amazing, and Blockers, where he was funny as hell. The dude is meant to be on the Superhero and Action Franchise portion of the trajectory, he’s going to be in the upcoming Suicide Squad movie and the next Fast and the Furious movie so he should be past this point in his career… but no, no he’s regressed. He doubled back to tick “Does a bad children’s film” off the checklist.
Playing with Fire focuses on a group of smokejumpers, which totally are cooler than firefighters and the reason we know this is because we’re repeatedly told that they’re cooler than firefighters. After a set of events happen that are neither interesting nor important in any way, all the smoke jumpers who didn’t appear in the promotional material end up quitting, leaving Captain Jake Carson (John Cena) and the rest of the people who turned up in the commercials to go out and handle a fire in a cabin. In this cabin, they find three small children of various ages and because of weather that’s allegedly so extreme that they can’t drive the kids to a hospital to get rid of them (I say allegedly because at its worst there’s a light sprinkle of water coming from the hoses that the crew held just above the windows every now and then) the smokejumpers are required for reasons of “WE NEED TO PRETEND THERE IS A POINT TO THIS MOVIE EXISTING” they are forced to look after the kids. Shenanigans ensue, the kids turn out to have serious emotional backstory when the time comes for everyone to get along, the captain not only needs to get a promotion but find love AND learn how to have emotions (because one character arc is for wusses, real movie characters have three pointless character arcs at once) and everyone must never stop making irritating noises because that is how you do comedy. Excuse me a moment, I must go and make a face-shaped hole in the nearest wall.
Nothing about the narrative of this film is in any way original. It is the most clichéd film I have seen all year, to the point where after 15 seconds of each character popping up on screen, I could tell you their entire character arc down to the second. There is no surprise, nothing clever or interesting and yes this is a film for kids but goddammit kids are not morons and deserve better than this. Kids deserve good family films that don’t insult their intelligence with every passing second. It shouldn’t be that hard to come up with a way to make a kids film that entertains them and treats them with some respect but this film doesn’t do that. Hell, Barney’s Great Adventure was better at not talking down to children and that movie was so bland that the VHS tapes used to be used as a substitute for drywall. Playing with Fire is somehow worse than that if you can somehow believe it.
The story didn’t even need to be that original, “Adults with tough jobs have to mind a bunch of rowdy kids” is a very basic structure you could use to create a few fun moments but they don’t use it well at all. There is never a moment when the kids are so over the top bad that it’s interesting, their worst moment is when one of them accidentally fills a room with foam and scratches the side of a car. There’s never a moment where the kid’s behaviour interferes with the work of the smokejumpers because after the dramatic opening scene there are no more scenes where the smokejumpers are required to jump into smoke. There is no moment where they go to fight a fire but can’t because… I don’t know, one of the kids borrowed the hose or they swapped the fire truck keys for plastic ones, anything that might give some form of dramatic tension. Nope, none of that, that would be interesting and we don’t do interesting here. The closest we get to interesting is a 5 minute long sequence where John Cena changes a diaper filled with poop and that’s only interesting because it’s astounding that no one demanded it be cut… I mean, the film already had a second pooping joke later in the film, there was enough shit already!
Visually the film is obnoxious, to the point where I was so sure the cinematography had to be done by some kid fresh out of film school who just learned what Dutch angles and zooms were and wanted to do them all… nope, this film was shot by the guy who won an Oscar for Dances with Wolves. This film looks like it was shot by someone who wanted to actively piss off the audience and it turns out it was filmed by a guy with actual talent who should know what the hell he’s doing. I learned this film cost $30 million and I’m not just going to assume that every person who ended up walking on the set got paid a million dollars to justify them turning up. This is atrocious, the visuals barely go above acceptable levels for a made for TV movie that had a month to go from casting to actual release. The only thing more irritating than the visual vomit that’s been shot all over the screen is the audio terrorism that we’re forced to endure. Characters that scream all the time as though a loud scream is a joke. Pointless music choices that ruin songs I used to like (Sure, play Uptown Funk during your opening scene fighting a fire… I didn’t want to like that song anymore anyway) and every character makes a ‘whoosh’ sound when they pop into the frame. Seriously, characters will just pop into frame and you will hear a sound like they’re goddamn cartoon characters. They’re not, cartoons are funny and this movie does not know what funny is.
Maybe if the script had jokes the actors would have something to work with, but they don’t so, of course, they all deliver horrible performances. The only person in the entire cast who is even trying is John Cena who is so much better than this movie, he doesn’t deserve to have to do this. Is this just a make a wish film? I know he does a ton of charity work, did some dying kid ask him to make this movie as their final wish and because John Cena is a good person he decided to do it? That’s the best excuse I’ve got for this because he’s trying to give a real performance like he was in a real movie that people should see. There’s a scene where he’s telling a bedtime story about a Yeti that’s clearly just a way for the writers to explain the emotional back story of the character. It’s awfully written but Cena sells the hell out of it, he delivers the story like it’s a story worth telling. I want to see the movie that John Cena thinks he’s in because that movie might actually be watchable, which would certainly be an upgrade from a movie that had me pulling the collar of my shirt up above my head so I didn’t have to look at the screen anymore.
Playing with Fire fizzles out in every way. The writing is bad, the setting is bad, the look is bad and the acting is bad. Even with the one bright spot of John Cena trying his damndest to hold everything together, nothing about this film works. They spent 30 million dollars on this movie, not including marketing (which I have to imagine was substantial since my local cinema has a giant cardboard fire truck advertising the movie… which is funny because an actual fire truck never appears in the film) and I do not know where a single dollar of it could’ve gone. It wastes a cast made up of people who have talent, they just decided not to use any of it. It wastes a fun setting that could have the potential for some good slapstick comedy. Most importantly it wastes the precious time of the audience who could be watching literally anything else. Your small child might enjoy this one, but your child probably also giggles when their new toy tells them that the cow says moo and frankly, your kid deserves a little better than a movie that would probably struggle to tell you what the cow said.