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John Cena stars in Playing with Fire.Photo Credit: Doane Gregory/Paramount Pictures

  • Playing with Fire
  • Directed by Andy Fickman
  • Written by Dan Ewen and Matt Lieberman
  • Starring John Cena, Keegan-Michael Key and Judy Greer
  • Classification PG
  • 96 minutes


1.5 out of 4 stars

Like many giant men before him, John Cena has crossed over from being a household name to those familiar with professional wrestling to being someone people who know nothing about professional wrestling can somewhat recognize.

Cena is currently at the stage of his career where his roles are essentially, “muscular man who is funny." At least, this is what Andy Fickman’s Playing With Fire is trying to make you think. The film co-stars three other truly funny people – Keegan-Michael Key, John Leguizamo and Judy Greer – and it’s hard to wonder what the point was in even hiring these amazing actors alongside Cena. Why make him the star of a comedy when they are all right there?

Reviews of films opening this week: Martin Scorsese’s gift The Irishman, and the familiar and formulaic holiday tale Last Christmas

It’s easy to compare Cena to his former wrestling rival, Dwayne Johnson. Both are full-time actors now and both have been in comedies that have varied in quality. The difference being that Johnson, even with bad material, shines. You know he’s on-screen for a reason, and he has the charisma to at least soften the blow of a truly awful film. Cena isn’t quite there yet; he can’t stand out on his own, unless given great material such as 2018’s Blockers.

In Playing with Fire, Cena plays Jake Carson, a smoke-jumper (not a regular firefighter, but someone who parachutes into wildfires) whose only focus is work. As the supervisor, he runs his division as though it’s the army. His underlings, Mark (Key) and Rodrigo (Leguizamo) live with him in their remote headquarters, where all they do is respect his authority and admire him. The only person they know is frog-loving scientist Dr. Amy Hicks (Judy Greer), whom Carson has dated a few times, although it didn’t work out because he’s so laser-focused on his job.

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John Cena's crew of smoke-jumpers find themselves tasked with entertaining a group of rescued children.Photo Credit: Doane Gregory/Paramount Pictures

One night, the smoke-jumpers rescue three children and they have to keep them overnight, which (uh oh!) ends up turning into a longer stay. Everything that happens from that point is exactly as you imagine it. There’s a teen Brynn (Brianna Hildebrand) who butts heads with Carson. Of course, the whole premise becomes: Can the children teach Carson that there’s more to life than work? Will that also help him get a promotion? Of course!

I understand this is a movie meant for families and children. I have many children in my life; I know how these movies go. This kind of film is meant to make kids laugh and have a good time. They can be predictable and full of slapstick comedy, but the good ones have some semblance of a soul. Children are not stupid – they understand feelings and family dynamics, they can be moved by a film as easily as they can laugh at a fart joke. As Playing With Fire progressed, it became increasingly clear that the target audience was not respected. This was made by people who seem to think kids are stupid.

And the film drags in a way that makes it unclear who the audience should be. Will kids care about this man’s career or that he is bad at dating? Nobody will. It would have been easier to watch if the rest of the cast could have been given the chance to display their talents, but this is Cena’s film, and he fails.

Leaving Playing With Fire, I Googled the run time. It felt unfair to me that children would have to sit through a two-hour movie. I was somehow wrong – the film clocks in at a mere 96 minutes. But even at one-and-a-half hours, it felt far too long.

Playing with Fire opens Nov. 8

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