Hollywood is nothing if not a great recycler. Although studios are not saving the planet in practice, they are adept at reusing intellectual properties. The industry is so full of tropes and clichés that audiences ignore much of them and just want to be pandered to. It is a symbiotic relationship: studios do not try, and audiences do not care.
This weekend we get served another one of these refurbished plotlines as wrestler-turned-thespian John Cena stars in “Playing With Fire.” He plays a smoke jumper elite firefighter who suddenly finds himself watching over a trio of children and, the promo copy cloyingly describes, “He quickly learns that kids, much like fires, are wild and unpredictable.” Family friendly shenanigans are promised as a result.
Cena is actually going through an initiation. There have been a steady stream of films thrusting established action men into a family comedy involving interactions with kids. It is a rite of passage in which the heroic star develops his comedy chops by making light of their persona and appearing off balance when faced with unfamiliar family foibles.
Most of these films have followed an established blueprint:
- The lead is in a “macho” career (military, law enforcement, athlete, etc.)
- Against his will, children are foisted upon him.
- The kids are more than a handful and challenge the persona of our hero.
- After comedically rough times, the character starts to connect with the kids.
- A third-act event threatens the newly formed bond.
- A happy ending forges a union between the star and the kids.
- (Bonus points awarded if the children have a pet that dismays the star.)
This is the elite club of which Cena has now become a member. Let’s look at other members in this club, and a brief history of its growth.
Arnold Schwarzenegger, ‘Kindergarten Cop’: This is arguably the title that kicked off this sub-genre. Arnold went through a career phase playing against type in comedic versions of his persona.
In this iconic role, he was an undercover cop who played a teacher to get close to the ex-wife of a dangerous criminal. It delivered a number of quotable lines, established Arnold’s comedic credentials, and served as the elevator pitch for all of the following films: “It’s ‘Kindergarten Cop,’ but with firefighters.” “Think KC, this time with a quarterback!”
Vin Diesel, ‘The Pacifier’: A wounded Navy SEAL is embedded in the home of a deceased scientist to protect the family and to locate his secret military experiment. The humor is derived from Diesel treating the kids like a squadron, looking at the family minivan as a military vehicle, and strapping on his tactical gear to carry diapers and juice boxes. Diesel is occasionally tormented by the family’s pet, a mallard duck.
While Arnold established this category of films, in a way “Pacifier” cemented the cliché. Dwayne Johnson was initially considered for the role, and for a time Jackie Chan was actually attached to star.
Dwayne Johnson, ‘The Game Plan,’ ‘Tooth Fairy’: If Cena is following a particular career path, it is that of the actor known as The Rock. Johnson has become an international star, partly because he paid his dues in these kid-centric ventures.
“Game Plan” sees him as a star NFL quarterback who suddenly discovers he is the father of an eight-year-old daughter, and his life is altered. “Tooth Fairy” sees him as a self-centered hockey player who tells a kid the Tooth Fairy is not real, so he is forced to serve as an actual tooth fairy as punishment, and to learn parental lessons. The purpose of this entire enterprise is to get the money shot of Johnson in a pink tutu and wings.
Jackie Chan, ‘The Spy Next Door’: Chan ended up with his opportunity when he plays a CIA agent who is charged with watching his girlfriend’s three children. He tries to win them over so he can marry their mother, but then one kid downloads a secret computer file and Russian agents arrive. Although he basically just punched his ticket here, Chan does deliver enough of his inventive stunts to make this slightly original, while cleaving strong to the outline of these films.
Hulk Hogan, ‘Mr. Nanny,’ ‘Santa With Muscles’: The Hulkster really made a bid to get into Hollywood, and for the most part succeeded. Sure, he did not rise much higher than a D-list celebrity, but he has his share of credits and scored the syndicated action series “Thunder In Paradise.” Give him credit for effort.
He first made the bid with “Nanny,” as a former wrestler hired to be a bodyguard for a pair of petulant children. There is a distinct “Home Alone” feel to the contraptions they spring on Hogan.
In “Santa” he plays a millionaire who gets amnesia and believes he is Santa Claus, for some reason. He deals with an orphanage and has to defeat a villain who wants to shut it down. This one is a painful exercise.
Dolph Lundgren, ‘Kindergarten Cop 2’: Yes, this actually happened. Twenty-six years later, this straight-to-rental release was unleashed, and it is graded far lower than the original. Lundgren has to pose as a substitute teacher to find a stolen flash drive with sensitive international intel — that is hidden inside a kindergarten classroom, for some reason. (The class pet hamster is a featured player.)
We get spoon-fed social commentary as the ultra-liberal teaching methods clash with Dolph’s conservative worldview. It is something of a treat to watch, if only to marvel that it was actually made at all.
Dave Bautista, ‘My Spy’: The newest entry is coming down the road. Bautista is known mainly as Drax, from the “Guardians of the Galaxy” films, and he was in the action-comedy “Stuber” this summer. In this entry, Bautista is a CIA agent sent to monitor a family. He becomes entangled with a precocious nine-year-old girl. Prospects are poor for this effort, as it originally was to be released last August but has moved to this coming January, a sign of a studio dumping a low-quality property.
Mostly what you get from these ventures are harmless, low-impact offerings. The comedy is broad but harmless, and much of the content is geared towards family fare. “Playing With Fire,” for example, is a Nickelodeon production.
The similarity in all of them, however, means little motivation for audiences to see more than one of any of the titles. Unless you are a fan of a particular performer, you do not need to see any additional films from this collection.
For the actors, it is an item to check off on their resume. Cena has completed his compulsory kid-pic performance, so now he can move on to his next career phase. He next works with Chan in a war action piece (check), then he has a role in the new “The Fast and the Furious” release (check), and then a role in a comic book film, the sequel to “Suicide Squad” (check), and then finally his own starring role in an action pic, “The Jansen Directive.”
Welcome to the club, John!