The trend of old 80s properties being remake into R-rated comedies aimed at audiences who never saw the original is approaching a middle, and the latest to jump on the coattails of its more successful predecessors is Baywatch, from Horrible Bosses director Seth Gordon.
The film follows the Baywatch lifeguard team as they monitor the most dramatic beach in the world, but when new recruit Matt Brody (Zac Efron) joins the squad after leaving his Olympic swimming career in disgrace, head lifeguard Mitch Buchannon (Dwayne Johnson) must teach him the value of teamwork. Meanwhile, the beach’s safety is threatened when a local drug smuggling ring is discovered.
Yet the problem here is that Baywatch just isn’t ludicrous enough. It shoots for the outlandish comedy and heartfelt centre of 21 Jump Street – the blueprint for any credible remake of a cheesy 80s TV show right now, but good reason – but it leans too far into all of its elements simultaneously. The action, drama and comedy are all ‘too much’ and played too straight to mesh well together at all, and none of them are good enough to carry the film on their own.
For instance, we’re expected to feel sorry for Brody, who lost his sponsorships and promising career after turning up to a race with a hangover and subsequently chundering in the pool, and we’re supposed to admire Buchannon for his leadership skills. The trouble is that the audience knows that being a lifeguard here isn’t some noble human pursuit, and the film flits back and forth between painting him as a someone we should take seriously and a figure of fun oblivious to his own overblown hubris.
The film can’t even decide who its protagonist is, repeatedly switching from Johnson’s Mitch to Ronnie (Jon Bass) to Efron’s Brody on a whim and never really settling on any of them. While Brody gets the main emotional arc, Johnson is clearly the star draw here and takes the place of David Hasselhoff in the cast. Then there’s Ronnie, the loveable misfit who might have been the best way to go.
He’s certainly the most likeable, even against Johnson’s ability to make even the most dreadful material winning with a simple smile and an arm fold. As a plus-sized lifeguard, there’s also surprisingly little fat shaming thrown Ronnie’s way, and his position as the tech guy on a team of adonis-like physical specimens makes him a natural entry point for most of the audience. If there’s a Baywatch sequel, it might need a shift in focus.
There are sparks of the film this should probably have been, most of which involve callbacks to the original series. Certain cameos are spoiled in the opening credits (and they are just cameos, so don’t get your hopes up) but other jokes about the sheer ridiculousness of this property land better than a lot of other gags. One particular scene in which the veteran lifeguards recount past adventures will provide a chuckle.
There’s a nod to gender balance – and lack of clothing is definitely equal opportunity – with the same number of guys and gals (Alexandra Daddario, Kelly Rohrbach and Ilfenesh Hadera) on the team, but it can’t be ignored that none of the women have a personality, an arc or anything really to do. They are there to be attractive, reward the heroes at the end, and nothing more.
Contrary to this disappointment there’s Priyanka Chopra as the film’s villain (a part reportedly written for a male actor) – it’s a welcome switch from the norm that, while it doesn’t save the film, adds a layer of interest. There’s a reason Chopra is a massive international star, and she joins Johnson as one of the most charismatic people on screen.
But after the promising opening, in which we’re treated to a joyful parody of The Rock’s public persona as a larger-than-life hero of the people, the world of Baywatch seems frightened of its own heightened reality, and this along with the shortage of really funny jokes makes it an underwhelming watch.
It ticks all the boxes, with likeable leads, crude humour and a passable narrative underneath the fun, but it all falls a bit flat in the end. In the end, this represents the downside of following a proven formula when there’s not enough wit or creativity to transform it into an enjoyable film.
Baywatch is in UK cinemas from May 29th.