Released on a week following the news of out of control fires scorching thousands of acres of California landscape forcing the evacuations of thousands of people, comes “Playing with Fire.” But this isn’t a ripped-from-the-headlines story of first responders risking their lives. Instead, it’s a kid’s comedy about “smoke jumpers” who are transformed by the very people they are there to protect.
Wrestler-turned-actor John Cena is Superintendent Jake Carson, a second-generation smoke jumper and a by the book guy. “We must be at our very best every second of every day,” he says. His team, the former accountant Mark (Keegan-Michael Key), motor mouth Rodrigo (John Leguizamo) and the intimidating Axe (Tyler Mane), are an eccentric but loyal bunch, willing to put their lives on the line to fight fires and save lives.
On one spectacular mission Jake is lowered into a burning cabin on a remote mountain, rescuing three kids, teenager Brynn (Brianna Hildebrand), high-spirited tyke Will (Christian Convery) and babe-in-arms Zoey (Finley Rose Slater). Their parents are on vacation and, as employees of the US Department of Forestry, Jake, Mark, Rodrigo and Axe are legally bound by the Safe Haven Law to look after the kids until they can be handed over to the guardians.
It’s not a natural fit. The kids arrive just as Jake is nominated for the Department of Forestry’s top job. As he tries to keep the station in a-one shape in advance of his boss Commander Richards’ (Dennis Haysbert) arrival and awkwardly court a local scientist (Judy Greer) the rambunctious children turn his life upside down.
“Playing with Fire” isn’t “Backdraft” for kids. There are some fiery action scenes but kid friendly awkward humor is the name of the game here. There are pratfalls, physical gags, poop and barf jokes but Cena’s goofy charm plus Key, Leguizamo and Mane’s strange exuberance distract from the movie’s predictable plot. Yes, it’s one of those stories where the tough guys reveal hidden reservoirs of tenderness and learn as much from the kids as the kids learn from them, but there are enough genuine laughs, for kids and adults, amid the silly stuff to warrant the price of a Saturday afternoon matinee ticket.