Playing With Fire
Paramount // PG // $19.94 // February 4, 2020
Review by Ryan Keefer | posted March 9, 2020
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Graphical Version
The Movie:

I'm perfectly happy to see WWE professional wrestlers trying to branch out from their past jobs into new ones in movies; goodness knows when he was The Rock, Dwayne Johnson wanted to branch out and has now done so in Hollywood action films like Central Intelligence, but he also cut his teeth on more wholesome fare like Moana as well. So now WWE superstar John Cena appears to be taking the same angle with family films before presumably moving into more action films, surrounding himself with a capable supporting cast in the process. And so, a film like Playing With Fire is born.

Written by Dan Ewen and Matt Lieberman (The Christmas Chronicles) and directed by Andy Fickman (who directed Johnson in Race to Witch Mountain), Cena plays Jake, a hotshot smoke jumping fire fighter leading a squad in California during moments of incendiary chaos. He rescues three children in a fire and brings them back to the fire station, where he and his closest troops; Mark (Keegan Michael Key, Don't Think Twice), Rodrigo (John Leguizamo, The Infiltrator) and Axe (Tyler Bane, Troy) are forced to be parents to the kids, much to their individual and collective dismay.

The film is pretty cut and dry at a high level; person who normally bristles against doing something having to do with a family is forced to do so, hijinks abound. The formula is pretty stale these days. The ensemble do their best with what they have to do; Rodrigo teaches the oldest (Brianna Hildebrand, Deadpool) how to cook and is a natural at being a parent based on all the kids shows he watched. Mark is one who found his calling after dropping out of the white collar world. It's Jake, the loner with career aspirations who is most affected by having the kids there until Mom gets to the station. The supporting stuff is subtle but not too bad.

It's Cena's show to run as it were and it's…okay? There's not a lot there that distinguishes his work from others put in similar spots. Or more specifically the material he has is lackadaisical, and the choices of sticking to the material rather than letting the cast (who have the chops to do so) run with it let the overall enjoyment of the film down. The difference between a film like this and ones that do well with protagonists who are similarly put into the fish out of water scenarios is that those films trust the instincts of their casts. Playing with Fire either does not or will not, which is a shame.

Along with the names mentioned, Dennis Haysbert (Far From Heaven) plays a Commander whom Jake is trying to woo over for a promotion, and Judy Greer (The 15:17 to Paris) plays an environmental scientist and Jake's love interest, the female lead to show Jake's emotional evolution over the course of the film. Given the capabilities of both, they could have done a little more with their roles, but perhaps there wasn't anything they had? Chicken and the egg debate I know, but it seems like it some people found some juice from a role and others didn't, perhaps the direction lacked a little bit.

I imagine that more will be taken from the nuance of Playing with Fire than from the film as a whole; Cena did fine, but not too fine otherwise the film would have made a bunch of cash, so he'll get more roles, and more challenging ones to boot. But given his dramatic abilities and those around him, I think he could have picked a better source material to work with that this thing.

The Blu-ray:
The Video:

Playing with Fire comes presented in an AVC-encoded 1.78:1 widescreen presentation that looks very good. Colors and flesh tones appear natural, with image detail appearing better than expected (a sequence when Jake tries to change a soiled diaper gave me ‘Nam flashbacks), and exterior shots have the tiniest bit of multidimensional appearance to them. All in all this was about as good, perhaps better than I expected.

The Sound:

The film has an accompanying DTS-HD Master Audio track that is also up to the task early on during the firefighting sequences. The lesser moments when Jake and the smoke jumpers have to play parents include lots of soapy suds, trips to the toy store, or fire alarms ringing and all sound clear with subtle channel bleed to the satellites. Dialogue is clean and well-balanced and the film provides a pleasing listening experience.

Extras:

There are a handful of things but they are light in information and entertainment. Thirteen deleted scenes (14:43) include a different tact on the family angle, more backstory on Leguizamo, and a Joe Mangianello cameo! There is some more ad-libbing here also, and some of this stuff could have been included in the final cut. Next are some bloopers (2:33) that are cute but forgettable. "Storytime with John Cena" (1:27) has him doing the Three Little Pigs, while "Lighting up the Laughs" (3:05) features the cast sharing their thoughts on one another. "Director's Diaries" include a sample of emails that Fickman sent to the cast at the end of various days of production and some are kind of funny! "What it means to be a Family" (4:32) looks at the familial themes of the film, and "Real Smoke Jumpers" (2:34) looks at the real-life figures the film sets itself on.

Final Thoughts:

Playing with Fire serves as a children's film and a starring vehicle for someone who probably has bigger goals in mind, and it sorta shows in this material. This seems like something that was a validation exercise for Cena, to prove that he could do, and didn't have to do a lot to show this in the process. Technically, the film looks nice and the bonus material is fine. I'm glad I can move along from Playing with Fire, almost as much as I imagine Cena is.



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