The film has the backing of Walden Media, the company set up by billionaire businessman Philip Anschutz, whose brand of Christianity has inspired him to invest in films with a “life-affirming” message.
This policy has brought us adaptations of classics such as The Chronicles of Narnia and Around the World in 80 Days, along with this year’s Dora the Explorer adventure, Dora and the Lost City of Gold.
At the same time, it has steered Walden away from anything that can’t be said to endorse “wholesome family values”. Fart jokes, however, are okay.
The film’s star is professional wrestler John Cena. He’s the team’s leader, Superintendent Jake Carson (usually known as “Supe”), and I imagine that the director, Andy Fickman, and his producers are hoping that he can shape up as a comic rival to his fellow pro wrestler, Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson, who has parlayed his gift for the deadpan into such a thriving screen career.
Cena will be seen in the next instalment in the Fast and Furious franchise and in the Suicide Squad sequel but judging from this performance, he has a long way to go before he can match The Rock’s instinct for coming up with well-placed moments of self-deprecation.
Supe and his team are “smoke-jumpers”, which means that they lower themselves from helicopters into burning buildings and other hotspots to quench fires and effect rescues.
Supe himself is known for keeping such a cool head in an inferno that he’s on the shortlist for the job of district commander.
The man who will decide on the winning candidate is the equally macho current commander (Dennis Haysbert). He’s going to be visiting the smoke-jumpers’ headquarters at some time in the next few days and we can confidently predict that the place is going to be in uproar when he arrives.
The children are already limbering up. Will (Christian Convery), a child extremely well versed in the art of creating chaos out of anything, regards the depot’s store of fire-fighting equipment as an open invitation to go for broke. And I mean broke.
Will’s little sister, Zoey (Finley Rose Slater), freaks out Supe and the team by viewing them as life-size cuddly toys. She’s also responsible for the fart jokes.
At the same time, their big sister, Brynn (Brianna Hildebrand), is curiously evasive when asked about the whereabouts of their parents.
The script is so bad that you care instead about the actors and their vain efforts to do something with its cliches
This might matter if we had been encouraged to care more about the kids’ fate but the script is so bad that you care instead about the actors and their vain efforts to do something with its cliches.
Comedians John Leguizamo and Keegan-Michael Key work so hard at trying to pump some energy into the Supe’s fellow smoke-jumpers that you fear for their health.
And the versatile Judy Greer (Arrested Development) labours through the role of Supe’s love interest because the script gives her nothing to do except stand around simpering in the face of his determination not to be distracted by any emotion capable of diluting his alpha maleness.
The slapstick is moderately entertaining, if alarming. The film’s “life-affirming” aspirations fail to inhibit Will from getting access to a terrifying range of dodgy-looking chemicals and potentially lethal bits of machinery, and using them to demonstrate his inventiveness.
But hardest to bear is the tear-stained ending with a softened Supe heading serenely for a happy ending as an awakened metrosexual man.
Sandra Hall is a film critic for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.