The Rock and Zac Efron make for an appealing machismo comic duo in 2017’s Baywatch, a straight-up send-up of the popular 90s TV show that doesn’t seem to understand what made it so popular in the first place.
I can tell you this much: it wasn’t the story. It was the beach, the bodies, and enthusiastic stars like David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson, who understood that in order to have fun with the material, they at least needed to try to take it seriously.
Producers of this update, meanwhile, are going for something like 21 Jump Street: a spoof sendup of a campy (but semi-serious) TV classic that relentlessly pokes fun at the whole premise of the original. You’ve gotta be good to do that, because you’re also inherently poking fun at yourself: only one of the Jump Street films succeeded, and Baywatch struggles to tread water.
Still, when it sticks to the beach, it gets by: scenes of a comic relief character (played by Jon Bass) becoming aroused and getting his junk stuck in a deck chair aren’t exactly high comedy, but they are closest the film gets to a laugh.
Scenes of relentless lifeguard “lieutenant” Mitch Buchanan (Dwayne Johnson) training cocky Olympian Matt Brody (Zac Efron), meanwhile, are completely flat. This is a total spoof that never takes itself seriously, but it also never exaggerates the situations to comic proportions, instead relying on the cast to provide anything that might be funny.
At some point, the film leaves the beach and becomes Chinatown, with a greedy real estate tycoon (Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra) trafficking drugs and murdering her way through L.A. The Baywatch lifeguards are on the case to save their bay, despite frequent requests from the real authorities (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Rob Huebel).
This sounds like it might be ridiculous and funny, but there’s so much plot to get through, and it’s played so straight, that the second half of the movie becomes a rote rundown of story that all takes place away from the beach: it’s a detective movie set in nightclubs and apartments and private yachts and office buildings.
This could be funny if the script contained anything resembling a joke, or any kind of humor to get us through the long scenes of exposition. But it could also be entertaining if the writers lended any kind of gravitas to their characters. Instead, the filmmakers try (and fail) to have their cake and eat it, too.
The movie need not be taken seriously to be effectively engaging on a story level – just look at the Rock-led Fast & Furious franchise – but it can’t be a total joke. In Baywatch, the filmmakers are so busy pointing and laughing at the absurd setup they’ve created that they forget to include a punchline.
The whole things is a subtle little jab at the original show, where lifeguards played by Hasselhoff and Anderson (who turn up in the briefest of cameos here) were turned into unlikely crime fighters. It probably would have worked as a short, but becomes increasingly tedious as a story-heavy two-hour feature.
While the original show memorably featured a female cast in that skimpy red swimsuit, the filmmakers here seem careful not to objectify their women. Unfortunately, that result in them writing them out of their movie: while a fully-clothed Summer (Alexandra Daddario) occasionally accompanies Johnson & Efron, CJ (Kelly Rohrbach) and Stephanie (Ilfenesh Hadera) are given nothing to do.
The movie doesn’t shy away from their male characters, however, and Johnson and Efron (who might even be more impeccably toned than his hulking co-star) get to show off their stuff here like in no movie before. And while Efron and Daddario could be fraternal twins with those piercing blue eyes, they make for a great on-screen couple.
Director Seth Gordon can make a good comedy with the right material (Horrible Bosses), and Baywatch is not an awful movie. But it is a surprisingly flat and unfunny one that manages to squander the appeal of the original TV show.