One of the first things I teach my students in composition classes is to consider their audience when writing. When you are defining something like Instagram, the definition would be different for a five-year-old reader versus a millennial versus a baby boomer. I mention this because my review of Playing with Fire is based on the assumption that I, a thirty-something woman, was not the target audience. It was clearly a film made for a kid or tween-ish audience. There were tiny instances of jokes that only an older audience would understand, like John Leguizamo’s character, Rodrigo, constantly mixing up famous quotes, which I assume most kids would not know. But that might just be a nod to the parents who are taking their kids to this film, in the same way most animated films made in the last 20 years have done.
Keeping all of that in mind, I thought Playing with Fire was alright. John Cena’s character, Jake Carson is a smoke jumper, which we learn is different than a firefighter. He is a cold, strict, White man in power, but his career goal is to have even more power. The filmmakers definitely make sure the audience is aware that he is kind-hearted, and doesn’t have any social skills due to an odd upbringing.
Two supporting characters are played by Black men. Keegan-Michael Key plays Mark, who is the definition of Black Best Friend and Uncle Tomfoolery tropes — subservient to the white protagonist while acting as the main comic relief. Mark’s role is solely to serve Jake. He explains to one of the kids the reason behind his subservient role, which just tells me that the filmmaker was somewhat aware that the service of Mark is problematic. Key is the funniest one in the film, for both adults and children, but the fact that the goofy, comedic best friend is also the only Black person in the group of smoke jumpers is a red flag.
The other Black man in the film is Commander Richards, played by Dennis Haysbert. While none of the characters are very developed, Richards is low on the list. He is comedic in the ridiculousness of the seriousness which he takes his position, but not much else. Even when he is disappointed at Jake, there is not a lot there. So while I didn’t notice any troublesome characteristics to Richards, he isn’t very memorable either.
Treatment of (the only) Woman
There is one woman in Playing with Fire, Amy, played by Judy Greer. She works with toads doing something that wasn’t fully explained and lives (or maybe just works) somewhere near the smoke jumpers’ HQ. She went on a few dates with Jake, and the two still like each other. It is all very innocent, again, because of the target young audience. It is also very unbelievable. There is no chemistry between the extremely talented Greer and Cena. Again, the filmmakers integrated some dialogue between Amy and Jake to point out when Jake was making gender assumptions to Amy. I assume this was a way to make sure no one thought Jake was a misogynist? However, there is no point to Amy except to be a love interest to Jake.
(The only) Latinx Character
Rodrigo was the fool and nothing more. The same can be said of Ax, played by Taylor Mane. However, there was one piece of background information that was provided to the audience for one single joke — and that was the fact that Rodrigo was in prison prior to smoke jumping. While Rodrigo is not shown as a gang-banger or aggressive, this character does feel like the stereotypical Hispanic criminal.
I almost forgot to mention the kids of the film. The three children who are responsible for the entire story-line are annoying and forgettable. The teenage girl is cold and rude, the boy is risky and destructive, and the young child is in some kind of purgatory between acting like a baby in the body of a preschooler. They were so confusing and not likable in the least.
This was not an original premise for a film — big muscly guy is forced to take care of kids and they end up softening his cold, stone heart. The director and writers of Playing with Fire were unsurprisingly all White men. The movie fell into several stereotypes both in story and characters, mostly negative stereotypes regarding women and POC and positive stereotypes for the White male protagonist hero.
My daughters, ages 5 and 8, loved the movie. They laughed hard and often, and did not get bored with the story. However, they have not seen Kindergarten Cop, Mr. Nanny, The Pacifier, The Game Plan, etc, etc where this is all very familiar. Just because it was a cute, funny movie made for a younger audience does not excuse the use of some of the oldest race and gender stereotypes of the medium.
Incluvie Score: The few non-White, non-male characters fulfilled harmful, micro-aggressive tropes; Director and writers are White men
General Score: Recognized story from many previous films; Funny moments provided by supporting actors
Written by Sarah Erskine