Timing is really off for 'Playing With Fire'

  • Firefighters (John Leguizamo, left, John Cena, Keegan-Michael Key and Tyler Mane) look after a toddler (Finley Rose Slater) in "Playing With Fire."

    Firefighters (John Leguizamo, left, John Cena, Keegan-Michael Key and Tyler Mane) look after a toddler (Finley Rose Slater) in "Playing With Fire." Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

 
 
Posted11/7/2019 6:00 AM

"Playing With Fire" -- ★

The creators of "Playing With Fire," a clodhopping comedy about California wildfire "smoke jumpers," built in little pauses after many of the film's sight gags and verbal jokes, presumably to accommodate audience laughter. Bad idea.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

If the movie were showing at a drive-in, the only sound during those pauses would be crickets chirping.

With horrific wildfires scorching California, the timing of this firefighter comedy also seems off. It might inspire empathy, if only it were funny.

Director Andy Fickman has multiple TV credits as a producer and director. But if you want an indication of his talents on the big screen, look no further than "Parental Guidance" and "Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2." In those ill-conceived farces, Fickman demonstrated a blunderbuss approach to comedy that lingers here like a dull ache. Nor is he helped by screenwriters Dan Ewen and Matt Lieberman.

WWE star-turned actor John Cena, bringing his likable lug-with-a-heart-of-gold persona, plays Jake Carson, the stoic, romantically challenged leader of a smoke-jumping station. Several of his men -- they're all men -- decamp to work for a more famous commander (Dennis Haysbert) at another depot. Jake must make do with a skeleton crew, whose ability to handle firefighting equipment, let alone fires, seems haphazard at best.

Keegan-Michael Key plays Jake's obsequious yes-man; John Leguizamo his nervous chopper pilot; and Tyler Mane is an ax-wielding, nonverbal giant. This would be a solid comic team under better circumstances, but even the best performers cannot keep this "Fire" alight.

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The plot kicks in as Jake rescues three children from a burning cabin: a sarcastic teen, her mischievous little brother and their toddler sister (Brianna Hildebrand, Christian Convery and Finley Rose Slater, a particularly charmless trio as directed here). Baby sister has yet to be potty trained, which leads to a protracted bit of toilet humor.

Jake must contact the kids' absent parents, try to rekindle his fizzled romance with a scientist (Judy Greer) and stop the kids from messing with the firefighting equipment.

Needless to say, the plot contrivances end happily. Even if the arts of cinema and comedy are abused in "Playing With Fire," the pain is brief, and -- with the closing credits -- disappears like a puff of smoke.

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Starring: John Cena, Keegan-Michael Key, John Leguizamo, Dennis Haysbert, Tyler Mane, Judy Greer, Brianna Hildebrand, Christian Convery, Finley Rose Slater

Directed by: Andy Fickman

Other: A Paramount Pictures release. Rated PG. 96 minutes

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