Playing with Fire review: John Cena comedy has the loose, erratic energy of an outtake

Dir: Andy Fickman. Cast: John Cena, Keegan-Michael Key, John Leguizamo, Brianna Hildebrand, Dennis Haysbert, Judy Greer. PG cert, 95 mins.

There’s something comfortingly humourous about the image of John Cena pedalling along on a child’s bike. It’s the most basic of contrasts – large man, small vehicle. Most of the jokes in Playing with Fire have this same tack, since the wrestler turned actor seems more than happy to exploit his own improbable, GI Joe physique for laughs, as seen in Trainwreck (2015) and last year’s Blockers. He’s so sturdy-looking that it feels like nothing on this planet could defeat him, making it easier for an audience to chuckle away when he’s crushed under a collapsing bunk bed or run over at full speed.

In Playing with Fire, a family comedy primed for the festive season, he plays Jake “Supe” Carson. He’s the head of a pack of smokejumpers in Redding, California, who helicopter into the heart of wildfires and snuff them out. They’re painted here as real-life superheroes, whose heroic deeds often play out in slow-motion and come soundtracked by Bruno Mars. It’s a sincere, but potentially misguided attempt to highlight the work of emergency crews currently facing climate change’s cataclysmic effects on the planet. After the majority of his team jump ship to Santa Barbara to be “part of the big leagues”, Supe is left with only a few loyal misfits: Mark (Keegan-Michael Key), Rodrigo (John Leguizamo), and Axe (Tyler Mane). When they rescue a trio of siblings from a burning cabin, the men must turn their fire station into a home, so that the kids have somewhere safe to stay until their parents arrive.

Yes, it’s another story about emotionally stunted men digging deep in order to uncover their paternal instincts, but Playing with Fire has its own peculiar charms. Although Dan Ewen and Matt Lieberman’s screenplay is sloppy and frequently unimaginative, the cast are so willing to put their egos aside – like a children’s party clown on their last resort – that it’s easy to be won over by all the goodwill on show. Every scene has the loose, erratic energy of an outtake (there are actual outtakes over the credits, of course). Key riffs on his famous “Obama’s Anger Translator” character, from the sketch show he co-headlined with Jordan Peele; always seen pacing behind Cena, he’s fidgety and tense – one burst blood vessel away from a tantrum. Leguizamo, meanwhile, brings back just a touch of his spirited, emotionally unstable Toulouse-Lautrec from 2001’s Moulin Rouge. He can’t stop himself from crying when he sees someone else in tears.

At one point, Dr Amy Hicks (Judy Greer, always deserving of more than the parts she gets), a local naturalist and the object of Supe’s affections, drops by. A few surreal instances of product placement later – packs of Kleenex randomly enter the frame, while an entire subplot involves My Little Pony – things get wrapped up with a neat, sentimental bow. Playing with Fire might be corny, but it’s clear its cast think so, too, and are willing to have fun with it.