Jake Carson is a no-nonsense, by-the-book kind of guy. And he leads his squad of smoke jumpers with a military precision that would make George S. Patton blush.
“We must be at our very best at every second of every day,” is the mantra he pounds into his fellow firefighting smoke jumpers. And for good reason: If you parachute into a blazing forest fire and miss your mark by a just a few feet, or if you lose sight of your training for just a few seconds, then many lives—including your own—could be lost.
Jake was raised in a smoke-jumper station house. He was raised by a smoke-jumper superintendant. He was raised to be exactly who he is, doing exactly what he does: It’s his calling and his passion. And the only small deviation he can even feasibly see happening in his near future is the possibility of actually becoming Division Commander, a dream that he shared and his deceased father.
One thing that Jake is completely and incontrovertably not prepared for, however, is dealing with children. They’re like tiny wildfires with tiny brains. They’re unpredictable. They’re destructive. They’re deadly, because they can cause you to take your eyes off your goals.
And wouldn’t you know it, it just so happens that children have now overrun Jake Carson’s fire station. After a nearby forest fire burned down a family cabin, Jake was barely able to drop-cable in and pull the three kids—teen Brynn, and her younger siblings Will and Zoey—to safety. But now, weather conditions have forced the squad back to base. And according to the Safe Haven Law, the kids must go with them until their parents or state authorities can arrive.
So now the famous and stalwart Jake Carson is facing his biggest challenge yet, performing his most daring feat ever. The always-prepared and never wavering Jake Carson must suddenly learn to … babysit!
Things get quite silly at times, but it’s clear that Playing With Fire values the heroism and sacrifices of firefighters. And even amid its slapstick shenanigans and boisterous hijinks, the film also displays a quietly thoughtful side when it comes to the importance of parents.
For instance, Will asks Jake to tell him a story before bed. Jake, unaccustomed to such routine parental duties, tenderly recounts a thinly veiled story about his single-parent dad. The story illustrates the love that Jake’s dad communicated, in spite of the man’s feelings of inadequacy.
[Spoiler Warning] Eventually, both Brynn and Will open up to Jake about their own parents’ death, as well as their struggles to run from authorities so that they can stay together as a family unit. Jake becomes a father figure for the kids, even though he fears that actually being a father would lessen his ability to do his job. The current division commander dispels that idea, telling Jake: “The people you care about and who care about you, they aren’t distractions. They’re the things that keep you going.” Jake and a woman named Amy (more about her below) fall in love, marry and adopt the three siblings, becoming an instant family. Will tells Jake, “Someday I’m going to be a hero, just like you.”
We see Jake with his shirt off a few times and once in the shower, where we see him from the waist up. He’s very muscular¬—something that a local female scientist named Dr. Amy Hix makes note of with appreciation when she sees him in a different scene. In fact, jokes are made about Jake’s rugged physique and heroism, too. After a rescue, one woman adoringly sighs, “My husband is dead, take me with you.” To which her husband says, “I’m literally standing right here!”
When the kids move temporarily into the fire station bunk house, young Will spots a bikini-girl poster hanging by one of the bunks. (It showcases a skimpily clothed woman with her back to the camera.) The youngest kid, Zoey, asks Jake to sing a lullaby before bed; in response, he begins to recite a naughty limerick about a “man from Nantucket,” before stopping himself.
There’s an obvious attraction between Jake and Dr. Hix. And Brynn suggests that Jake invite Amy to spend the night at the station after she comes over for dinner. To his credit, Jakes says that choice would be inappropriate.
Most of the violence in the mix here is of the slapstick, adults-getting-thumped variety. Jake is comically slammed around inside a burning building, for instance, when a rookie helicopter pilot misunderstands his command and prematurely tries to lift Jake up by an attached cable.
Firemen get slammed into walls and have bunk beds (and other things collapse) on them—slapstick incidents usually caused by the kids in one way or another. And the kids manage to create trouble in other ways, too. Young Will, for instance grabs a couple of flare guns. Mistakenly thinking that they’re NERF guns, he fires them inside the station. The flares ricochet off the walls, hit people and set someone on fire. Little Zoey grabs a nail gun and starts shooting metal projectiles around. Someone squirts barbeque fluid on hot coals, causing an explosion. A spilled tub of soap is sprayed with a fire hose and creates a room full of slippery soap bubbles. A birthday cake is accidentally turned into a raging inferno. A young boy runs full force into the side of a van, knocking himself out cold.
Some of these hijinks cross a line into more dangerous-looking stuff. Brynn steals an ATV for instance, running into Jake with the vehicle and sending him flying when he tries to halt her progress. And a stolen Humvee crashes and almost sends the kids plummeting to their deaths before they’re rescued. Several scenes also involve raging forest fires that surround people in their vehicles.
Uses of “oh my gosh” and one exclamation of “God, yes!”
Will finds a bottle of booze in the bunkhouse. One of the firefighters snatches it up quickly; he says it wasn’t his, but adds that he’d “take care of it” anyway.
Little Zoey likes having tea parties and she somehow gets her hands on lighter fluid, which she pours in the cups. Jake and another adult spit the fluid out: one of them actually causing a fire. A large firefighter named Axe, however, ignites the cup of flammable liquid and drinks it down.
The kids are rebellious sorts who pay no heed to most of the instructions or directions given by adults. In fact, teen Brynn and tween Will both openly defy the requests and the demands leveled in their direction. Their defiance—ranging from openly lying and causing havoc, to stealing keys and vehicles—is played for laughs.
Zoey is too young to purposely cause much harm, but the little girl becomes a constant source of not-yet-potty-trained toilet humor. Her repeated reports of making “boom boom” in her pants sends the adults into gagging fits. (Again, played for laughs.) And in one instance the child’s excrement explodes up and into the facemask of Jake’s hazard suit. Poop emoji are also another running gag.
OK, so you don’t need a magnifying glass and a decoder ring to look at this film and instantly have your “goofy kids’ flick” warning buzzer start squawking. With one peek, you know pretty much exactly where this PG pic is going and what sort of firehose-blast and potty-eruption silliness you’ll be drenched in. (Think wannabe Three Stooges-style slapstick dressed up in a very thread-bare fire suit.)
And truthfully, if that was your first impression, you wouldn’t be wrong.
But Playing With Fire is actually funnier—and even a bit deeper—than it appears to be in its trailers. Keegan-Michael Key (of Key & Peele fame) knows how to tickle a funny bone. And even when the scripted stuff isn’t particularly chuckle-worthy, he’s able to at least leave you grinning. And the rest of this movie, and its cast, works hard to follow that lead.
On top of that, there’s also an adoption-friendly focus here that kicks in by the time the credits roll. It may not totally save you from all the “baby boom-boom” that your scorched senses will endure, but it does sweeten the burn.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.