Family comedies aren’t always an easy sell from a critical perspective, as it’s truly a rare feat to land a film that can please the genre’s wide range of fans from any age. So if there’s a feature that can keep the kids entertained while also scoring some good laughs from the older folks in the audience, it almost feels like winning the lottery. The latest film to cash in a winning ticket of that sort is Andy Fickman’s Playing With Fire; a movie that plays close to the standard formula of tomfoolery and hijinks you’d expect, but in a very confident and enjoyable way.
The action of Playing With Fire surrounds a group of smokejumpers (Keegan Michael-Key, John Leguizamo, and Tyler Mane) led by the uptight-but-lovable Superintendent Jake Carson (John Cena). Used to facing danger on an everyday basis, Carson isn’t exactly the best when it comes to handling his emotions, a challenge that’s put to the test when he and his team rescue a trio of kids (Finley Rose Slater, Christian Convery, and Brianna Hildebrand) from a recent house fire.
Playing With Fire knows what it's doing, and wastes no time getting to it
As Cena’s character learns how to care for children, and at the same time loosens himself up for everyday living, the film almost immediately finds one of its greatest sources of humor. Setting that particular challenge up from frame one, the story gets going pretty quickly, and heads exactly where you think it’s going.
However, even as it deftly walks down a familiar path, playing John Cena off of his various co-stars in a fashion audiences might be used to, Playing With Fire manages to do so with a particular attitude of glee rather than routine. Part of that comes from the eclectic team of firefighters the film casts to jump into battle alongside Cena, with everyone pitching in to create a lineup that balances out perfectly.
John Cena anchors the film's cast, and antics, with expert precision
With a blend of attitude, goofiness, and silent menace, putting John Cena at the center of these talents as the straight man pays off, as there’s a little bit of something for everyone in terms of the more adult spectrum of humor in this PG rated film. So as far as tweens and adults are concerned, their bases are covered. But there’s a similar success in casting the child actors for Playing With Fire, as cuteness, hyperactivity, and teenage snark all form strong independent foils Cena’s on-screen antics.
As if there wasn’t enough going on in this movie, there’s a romantic comedy snuck into the mix as well, with Judy Greer plays an environmental research specialist that has a bit of an on again/off again relationship with Jake Carson. True to the rest of Playing With Fire’s laughs, though, this subplot isn’t milked or contrived, but instead plays it straight and narrow with some pleasant results.
That pretty much sums up the entirety of the film’s success too, as a standard formula is met with the expert timing and performances of the entire cast, be they young or young at heart. And heart is certainly present as well in Playing With Fire, as the emotional beats won’t wear you out, but aren’t exactly tearjerkers at the same time. One word sums up this movie’s ability to work as smoothly as it does: balance.
Playing With Fire follows a very familiar formula, but isn't afraid to own its predictability
Don’t expect anything too surprising in Playing With Fire, as you could pretty much call all of its shots from the start. There’s also a little bit of a problem when it comes to focusing on any particular story, as there is a lot going on at the surface level, but not much depth to any of it.
Still, the overall package that this film delivers is surprisingly solid, and with all of the plates spinning around in this narrative, nothing breaks. It may not be reinventing the genre or breaking down boundaries, but Playing With Fire is a movie that remembers to have fun, while playing to its cast strengths. This picture aims to please, and doesn’t want anyone to be left out in the fun.
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