In its heyday, the ’90s TV series Baywatch was an over-earnest, oft-ridiculous drama that had brawny men and busty women serving as self-appointed saviors of their beachfront. They were to be awed and ogled as they ran in slow motion to save the day, not only taking on rip tides, but also crafty criminals. So when rebooting this property as a summer movie spectacle, convoluted plot lines, lots of slo-mo, and an ensemble of astoundingly beautiful people was a must. Beyond that, however, the new Baywatch can’t decide how best to adapt this old-school guilty pleasure, so it chucks a bunch of f-bombs, dick jokes, and gross out gags, creating a crude comedy that’s more often repulsive than fun.
Dwayne Johnson stars as Baywatch leader Mitch Buchannon, a local hero who is adored by the sunbathers with sand-made shrines, but under-appreciated by the police and his PR-obsessed boss Captain Thorpe (an aggravating Rob Huebel). When hard drugs that are like “bath salts on meth” wash up on his shore, Mitch enlists his trusted teammates, the bubbly CJ Parker (Kelly Rohrbach) and the stalwart Stephanie Holden (Ilfenesh Hadera), as well as new recruits, the no-nonsense Summer Quinn (Alexandra Daddario), the impulsive Matt Brody (Zac Efron), and the socially-awkward schlub Ronnie Greenbaum (Jon Bass), to track the stash to elegant entrepreneur Victoria Leeds (Priyanka Chopra).
While the second act gets tangled in a dizzying amount of exposition, Baywatch‘s main focus is the explosive relationship between Mitch and Brody. While the former seeks lifeguards who can make smart calls and work as a team, the latter is a disgraced Olympian swimmer (think gold metal-douche Ryan Lochte), who is only concerned about himself. Thankfully, Johnson and Efron have a crackling chemistry that makes their scenes at least amusing, even if the jokes within them grow stale. A running bit where Mitch will only call Brody by the names of boy bands (One Direction, NSYNC) jumps the shark when he addresses him as “High School Musical,” but that isn’t the end of it. Still, with so much attention going to this rocky bromance, too little time is spent defining the other members of Baywatch beyond the most vague of stereotypes.
Stephanie is competent. Summer is sassy, occasionally even getting a joke in during one of the many, many scenes where she’s standing near Mitch and Brody as they bicker. CJ is, well, CJ is solely a fantasy object. While Rohrbach manages to infuse warmth and charm into the role, her character’s job is basically to be leered by the chubby creeper Ronnie. When she saves his life by performing the Heimlich maneuver, director Seth Gordon (Horrible Bosses) cuts to a low-angle shot of CJ’s butt, which jiggles as she thrusts her body against Ronnie to save his life. But Ronnie is not just the fanboy living the fantasy of getting close to CJ’s inviting bosom. He’s also a running joke, falling, failing and otherwise making a mockery of people who dare to have non-model bodies.
This Heimlich sequence leads into one of the film’s most cringe-inducing and protractedly unfunny bits. Naturally, all that CJ closeness gives Ronnie an erection. Of course, he’s an utter spaz who can’t get an erection without panicking and throwing himself face first onto an inconveniently-placed wooden deck chair. Obviously, his engorged penis and testicles get stuck between the slats. Clearly, we need multiple shots of this impossible anatomical catastrophe. And absolutely, CJ and Mitch have to help him out, while a plethora of tourists gawk and record on their cell phones. Comedy!
There’s a shocking slew of jokes like this, that assume male genitalia is inherently hilarious, and so spins these premises — like Brody having to handle a dead man’s jangle — into excruciatingly long scenes. Then for good measure, they throw in some gay panic jokes, and treat the word “fuck” like it’s a punch line of it’s own. Admittedly, I laughed when Brody hits on Summer with a corny pick-up line, and she retorts, “And not a fuck was given.” But as much of a fan as I am of the f-word, it offers diminishing returns when flung around in a desperate effort to seem mature or badass.
Rather than offering something playful and gleefully over-the-top, Baywatch stretches itself thin trying to be a hard-R comedy, a high-octane action flick, and at times even a tender coming-of-age drama. The result is a film that feels like a failure three times. The comedy is often sophomoric, and attempts to have it both ways, playing the bro card with fat-shaming and boob-leering, but then attempting recompense by having CJ flirt with Ronnie, and Summer call out Brody for staring at her chest, only for him to do it again, and again, and then blame her for his staring. (How dare she have boobs if she doesn’t expect to be leered at!) And those thinking the R-rating means you’ll get Baywatch with bare boobs, sorry — the only nudity here is male. And because Gordon can’t seem to comprehend audiences might appreciate some lusty shots of Johnson and Efron, the nudity is neither of theirs, and all for comedy.
Amid such juvenile jokes, Baywatch never manages the hard turn into heartfelt, so the drama never lands. But at least the action is moderately interesting. Gordon has no flare for stunt sequences, and the editing makes certain moments muddy, but Johnson and Efron are proper action stars, and know how to make swimming under clearly CG fire thrilling. While the final act is a jumble of rushed plot points and repetitive expositional dialogue, Johnson and Efron hold it down with sheer bravado, and Chopra sparkles playing a bombshell baddie with no patience for these lifeguards gone rogue.
All told, there is some fun to be found in this Baywatch. As we saw in Neighbors 1 and 2, Efron is at his best playing an oblivious douche with a hidden heart. Johnson’s charisma dazzles even amid a torturous string of testicle jokes, and Chopra is wickedly delightful as a deadly diva. Daddario, Rohrbach and Hadera manage to shine despite a script that gives them virtually nothing to do, and longtime fans might thrill over cameos and cheeky allusions to the old-series. (I mean, the oddly high-cut women’s swimsuits). But thanks to scads of jokes best suited to a frat party, Baywatch is more ick-inducing than entertaining.
Baywatch opens May 25.
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