I cannot fathom a movie less necessary than a Baywatch remake in 2017.
It’s not helped at all by how shamelessly it apes the formula laid out by Lord/Miller’s improbably genius 21 Jump Street films. There are new recruits hired into the storied ranks of the original team, a meta-narrative about how they’re trying to revitalize the brand, a half-assed plot about drug dealers, and a sense of humor that aims so low-brow that it shoots itself in the foot. But whereas the Jump Street films had a team of absurdist masterminds at their disposal, Baywatch has a hard time even coming up with more than three jokes. It’s also far too long for its own good. The film only manages to skate by on the genial charm of its cast.
The movie opens as Emerald Bay lifeguard Mitch Buchanan (Dwayne Johnson) rescues an injured windsurfer in spectacular fashion. The camera follows this Oceanic adonis as he leaps into the water like a superhero and emerges triumphant, the movie’s logo rising out from the depths behind him. As bombastic as this is, it’s all played for laughs. The Baywatch logo bursts out of the water, bringing with it an entire school of dolphin, some even bouncing off the logo on their way back down. This opening segment plays like Johnson’s failed audition for Aquaman, and over the course of the movie he shows us repeatedly what we’re missing out on.
Mitch and his Baywatch team hire new recruits in the competent and resourceful Summer (Alexandra Daddario), walking fat joke Ronnie (Jon Bass) and disgraced Olympic swimmer Matt Brody (Zac Efron). Brody’s been brought in by the chief as a ringer to boost the profile of the Baywatch office. (This is part of that “we’re trying to save the brand” meta-joke.) Meanwhile, Mitch and fellow lifeguards Stephanie (Ilfenesh Hadera) and CJ (Kelly Rohrbach) investigate the wave of crystal meth suddenly washing up on their beach, and its connection to real estate/drug/murder mogul Victoria Leeds (Priyanka Chopra).
Baywatch is a thin approximation of the show, with the added bonus of somehow being two hours long.
Brody even comments on how a typical day on Mitch’s team sounds “like a really entertaining but far-fetched TV show,” because desperately winking at the audience is the sincerest form of flattery. He’s frequently baffled by the antics he’s forced to engage in, which should make him the straight man. Except isn’t Mitch the straight man in this comedy team, because all these shenanigans are normal for him? It’s hard to pin down where the joke is supposed to be in all this. Later, Brody and Mitch go around in circles with a cop (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) who only exists in the film to remind the main characters that they’re lifeguards and not actual police officers. Pointing this out must be the height of comedy, because they go back to that well at least five times.
For as much time as Baywatch spends denigrating its own premise, it spends an equal amount of time lingering on slow-motion shots of its cast running down the beach in skimpy outfits. “The TV show may have been kitschy garbage,” the movie seems to say. “But at least it got one thing right.” And while it turns CJ’s slow-motion jog into its own joke, it has no problem staring slackjawed as Zac Efron plays American Ninja Warrior all over the beach. After all, fair is fair. (I know it’s not exactly news, but holy shit is Efron shredded.) Baywatch ogles each of its cast members in turn, including Ronnie, who struggles to get his boner unstuck from a lounge chair while everyone stands around and watches.
This is a movie stuck switching between two modes. There’s the postmodern comedy angle, where Baywatch constantly comments on how its a dumb jokey remake of a TV show about sexy lifeguard cops; then there’s the straight-faced remake angle, where Baywatch gives up on the comedy and tries its damnedest to make David Hasselhoff proud. To that end, the film even reserves cameo roles for the Hoff and Pam Anderson, who shows up right at the end playing CJ’s mom, CJ. Hasselhoff somehow looks even more hacky and washed up than he did in his Guardians of the Galaxy 2 cameo. How such a thing is possible is beyond me.
And yet, for all its lazy scripting and director Seth Gordon’s inability to stage a proper joke, the thing that nearly saves Baywatch from itself is the sheer likability of its cast. Dwayne Johnson is utterly committed to his role here, and his no-nonsense swagger matches Zac Efron’s feckless, womanizing Brody scene for scene. And though Leeds barely registers as a character, Priyanka Chopra makes for an interesting villain all the same. Hopefully she finds stronger material in the future. The Baywatch movie has no real reason for existing, and its script reads like a two-hour self-own, but the cast seems to be having fun. That’s almost enough to save this thing. Almost.Liked This? Share It!