When firefighter Jake Carson and his team rescue three siblings in the path of a wildfire, they quickly realise that no amount of training could have prepared them for their most challenging job yet – babysitting.
This movie – about an uptight smokejumper who ends up caring for three children he saves from a burning cabin – sounds like they started with a title and worked backwards.
It’s still reasonably diverting, and thankfully quite short, though it fits more neatly into the intermittently amusing category of comedy rather than the rip-roaringly funny. You’ll probably find yourself, like its stars, straining for it to be funnier than it is. At other points contrived situations are simply bizarre.
John Cena is Superintendent Jake “Supe” Carson, a career smokejumper (they’re dropped from helicopters into wildfires rather than arriving in a fire engine) following in his illustrious late father’s singed footsteps.
Smooth and solid, Jake looks like a cross between Max Headroom and a Ken doll, his face impassive apart from regularly-appearing deep forehead wrinkles as he is faced with more bad behaviour from the rescued children.
And there is a cartoonish quality to this whole movie; unsurprising considering the children are dragged, wisecracking, out of their home as fire rages around them, and they would have soon been burnt to a crisp.
Jake’s father, too, is lauded by the retiring area commander Richards (Dennis Haysbert) for going the same way, “burnt to a crisp” apparently being the ultimate honour for a smokejumper. (Whatever you think of the film, you will come away with it ingrained on your mind that while there are a million firefighters in the US there are only 336 smokejumpers.)
Jake may be a stickler for rules and order, but his depot is considered far from the top flight.
Early on most of his men defect to the more exciting and better known Santa Barbara branch, leaving Jake with only his B team: ex-accountant Mark (Keegan-Michael Key); the mostly silent Axe (ex-wrestler Tyler Mane), a man mountain who always carries a giant axe; and terrified reserve chopper pilot Rodrigo (John Leguizamo). Rodrigo constantly misquotes famous people (“teach a man to set a fire and he’s warm for a day, set a man on fire and he’s warm for life”, as Ben Franklin allegedly said, though I think he’ll find it was Terry Pratchett) and will also only cook with a certain type of luncheon meat, though sadly, Brits, you will wait in vain for a Fireman Spam joke.
Their first post-defection airborne rescue, of the three kids in their burning cabin, is caught on film and Commander Richards decides he wants Jake on his shortlist for his successor.
Once they’re ensconced at the depot awaiting the arrival of their missing parents, the children – toddler Zoey (Finley Rose Slater), tween Will (Christian Convery) and teenager Bryn (Brianna Hildebrand) – are ungrateful and annoying. Brynn is a sarcastic pain in the ass, and though the (extremely obvious) reason for their attitudes is revealed about two-thirds of the way through, it does mean it’s hard to feel emotionally engaged with them or their shenanigans.
Brynn and Will in particular are more irritating than funny, in a film where every joke already has to be worked for. Cena, Judy Greer who plays local toad scientist and potential girlfriend Dr Amy Hicks, Leguizamo and Key have to bend over backwards (literally it seems sometimes) to create a punchline.
There just isn’t enough depth to the children’s characters, or enough jokes in general, to create a connection, which makes the wholly expected final act feel even more emotionally manipulative than it would anyway.
The most amusing characters are Axe and three year old Zoey, and it’s no coincidence that they are people of few words. Both are almost silent, both are almost certainly deadly. They also have a very sweet bond, as Zoey feeds him pretend cups of tea that turn out to be lighter fluid.
Zoey, obsessed with My Little Pony, tames and renames Jake’s massive dog Sparkle Pony, but mostly just cackles evilly, screams at the top of her lungs, or shouts “boom boom!” which turns out to mean poo. (My 8 year old also loved Axe, or I’m assuming that’s who he meant when he told me about “you know, when films have a really buff huge guy who doesn’t say anything. I liked him best”.)
The two younger children spend their time finding every possible dangerous substance around the depot from paint stripper to nail guns, with Jake becoming more and more irate. The kids’ parents, unsurprisingly, remain absent. One night becomes several, made possible by the California’s safe haven law for minors.
Cena is, within the cartoonish confines of his meticulous, dedicated but humourless character, perfectly decent. He’s basically the straight man to all the others. Everyone does their best with thin material. The jokes seem to stretch out for aeons, which sometimes works (a slapstick-y, slippery trip round the parking yard) but mostly doesn’t (a very dull trip to the local supermarket to buy presents for one of the kids’ birthdays).
Despite a runtime of only 96 minutes Playing With Fire burns out before the end, the literal foam with which Will fills the garage replaced by metaphorical treacle.
Still, somehow I doubt I need to tell you how this will pan out, what with the attractive single toad scientist, single man with whatever-smokejumpers-earn-a-year in need of a wife, three kids and dog.
Playing With Fire is available in the UK for download and keep now.
Note: I’ve put an ending spoiler beneath the trailer though you’ve probably worked out how it will end!
Watch the trailer now:
Spoiler: The children’s parents are dead and they’ve run away from foster care. At the end, Jake realises that under the Safe Haven law he can keep the children living with him instead of them going back into foster care with strangers. They move into his house, and he then marries Amy. The film finishes with their wedding.