I hate myself a little for admitting this, but I couldn’t help but giggle every time I saw the “Playing With Fire” trailer.
The critic in me is screaming that I shouldn’t be laughing at the film’s hijinks or even admitting that I did. But, by golly, this film was a hidden gem.
It stars John Cena — or “the poor man’s Dwayne Johnson,” as my boyfriend calls him — as a fire superintendent that knows nothing but rules and procedures. His outpost is shipshape and run with the utmost of care. Beds are crisply made, equipment is always at the ready and his team will be prepared if disaster should strike. He’s a smoke jumper, and he’s ready for whatever comes his way.
His team, Mark (Keegan-Michael Key), Rodrigo (John Leguizamo) and Axe (Tyler Mane), jump when he says jump. But, they’re quirky. Mark is always lurking, ready to help Supe (Cena) any way possible. Rodrigo claims to be an expert with history and quotes — he’s not — but he is superb at creating entrees with spam. And, then there’s Axe. He doesn’t speak, and he carries an ax. All. The. Time. They’re a bit eccentric, but they get the job done.
When Supe learns the district commander (Dennis Haysbert) is retiring, he sees the opportunity as his chance to fulfill his father’s dream. Supe’s dad was also a smoke jumper, but he was killed in the line of duty when Supe was a kid, so the son has devoted his entire life to being a hero and a leader. It’s a lonely life, with little room for much else.
Supe’s entire world — and outpost — is turned upside down when his team finds three kids in a fiery cabin. With a storm coming in, the children have to stay at his station until their parents can come pick them up.
Needless to say, it doesn’t go well. The teenage Brynn (Brianna Hildebrand) will do anything to protect her younger siblings, Will (Christian Convery) and Zoey (Finley Rose Slater). Unfortunately, doing so wreaks havoc on Supe’s life and his station.
When the film started, I was a bit worried I was in for a feature film presentation of a Disney Channel show. You know the type. The humor is exaggerated, the laughs are extra pronounced and the antics a bit ridiculous. There were a few one-liners that felt a bit forced and had me fearful I’d been led horribly astray by a cute baby and dog in the trailer.
As the film went on, though, I realized there was something deeper in the film. Supe is a bit of an automaton, but we learn he’s worried that distraction will keep him from doing his job. He attempted 2½ dates with a local scientist, Amy (Judy Greer), but things didn’t go well. He’s devoted every minute to becoming a better smoke jumper and living up to his legendary father. It’s left no time for personal connections.
As the film progresses, he begins to realize his father may be gone, but Supe’s still got a family. A messy, spontaneous family that doesn’t fit a rule book. The children leave his station a wreck, teach his men to be a bit frivolous and push Supe past his comfort zone.
And it’s fluffy goodness that leaves the audience feeling warm and fuzzy. Cena isn’t an overly talented actor, but he’s perfect for this role. “Playing With Fire” isn’t a deep film, and it’s not an Oscar winner. But, it’s a film that makes you feel better for having seen it.
On Rotten Tomatoes, only 24% of critics have nice things to say, but the film has an 80% audience approval. Count this critic among the 80%, because it’s a good time and well made, a whole lot better made than a film like this needed. And, that’s something to be praised.