Rambunctious Kids are No Match for Rugged Smokejumpers in ‘Playing with Fire’

Wrestler John Cena continues his quest to become a star of family friendly cinema with his latest feature, “Playing with Fire.” Although he portrays a man with one of the most dangerous jobs imaginable, smokejumper, the WWE star mostly plays it safe here.

Cena leads an ensemble cast as Jake “Supe” Carson, one of only three hundred or so elite wildfire fighters, or smokejumpers, who are specially trained to deal with wildland fires. Growing up in the fire depot where his widowed father worked, he knew from a young age that he wanted to follow in his dad’s footsteps, which were made all the more bigger when he died in the blazes. Being “burnt to a crips” is the highest honor for a smokejumper, at least according to Division Commander Richards (Dennis Haysbert). After his latest heroic venture saving Californians from the flames, Supe is finally close to what he views as the pinnacle of his career, taking over for Richards as he heads into retirement. However, a wrench is thrown his way after a trio of kids are unexpectedly put under the care of him and his team thanks to a safe haven law.

After an adrenaline-fueled opening scene in which we see Supe and his team at work in the field, “Playing with Fire” takes some time to get its engines revved, as we mostly get to know the smokejumpers, not only Supe, but also his colleagues, former accountant Mark (Keegan-Michael Key), Rodrigo (John Leguizamo), who has a habit of misattributing variations of famous quotes, and Axe (Tyler Mane), whose name says it all, as he mainly just stands around holding an axe.

The plot picks up after the guys are called to save some cabin dwellers from a late-nigh wildfire. Cena ends up rescuing a trio of kids: mature-beyond-her-years teenager Brynn (Brianna Hildebrand), rambunctious elementary schooler Will (Christian Convery), and adorable tyke Zoey (Finley Rose Slater). As their parents are supposedly away and cannot get to them until the end of the weekend, Cena and the guys are compelled to take care of them for the next two nights. Predictably, mayhem ensues as the kids, particularly the younger two, discover all the firehose and all the other cool toys that a fire depot has to offer. It should come as no shock that all Supe’s training to become a smokejumper commander has done little to prepare him for childcare duty. 

The always delightful Judy Greer adds a spark to “Playing with Fire” as Amy Hicks, PhD, an environmental scientist who takes issue with Supe’s disturbing her toad habitat. So uptight is Supe that he calls her Dr. Hicks, despite the fact that they have been on a few dates. A highlight of the movie is her expressing her frustrations about him by venting to a pair of toads in her lab.

Overall, “Playing with Fire,” with its wackiness, is a fun film for kids, although it fails to capture the magic of another recent Paramount feature with a similar plot, “Instant Family.” Some of the connections feel forced, and even a skilled comedic talent like Key comes across as stifled. However, there’s plenty of opportunities for Cena to take his shirt off, a bonus for any parents or tagalong caregivers who are into that sort of thing.

Playing with Fire” opens Nov. 8 nationwide.