I am going to make a confession. Despite its legendary role in the formative years of an entire generation of males, I’ve never seen Baywatch. Not really. It was before my time. I certainly was aware, broadly speaking, of its existence while growing up in the ‘90s. And I definitely understood on an academic level the geometrical sway it held over millions of viewers when that motion slowed, but by the point when I was of an age to truly appreciate the many subtleties of David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson’s landmark series, it had already passed off this televised coil, bouncing at a deliberate and hypnotic rate forevermore beyond the gates of camp classic Valhalla.
Thus for better or worse, Baywatch was probably always destined for a big screen revival—a prime candidate for nostalgia data-mining, which Hollywood has been practicing since well before the Hoff hit the beach. Still fans should thank their lucky German stars it’s come about in this present, one where every crummy piece of serialized kitsch is being trotted out in an effort to cash in on the brilliance of Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the writer-director pair who turned a goofy undercover cop melodrama for teens into an R-rated comic gem.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not the 21 Jump Street influences that wholly make Baywatch, a lewd and crude comedy, work. They help. But it also has come out in the era of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson at the height of his self-proclaimed Franchise Viagra™ superpowers. And for all the nubile skin on display, it’s his charismatic mug that gives Baywatch the virility to push through every joke that doesn’t work—and linger on the many that do.
The story of 2017’s Baywatch is an appropriately simple one. The Rock is Mitch Buchannon, a six-foot and five-inch Übermensch who doubles as a lifeguard; his uniform might be swim trunks, but the sandy beaches are his kingdom, and his spandex merely a crown by another name. Zac Efron is Matt Brody, a hotshot loner who after burning out of the U.S. Olympic swim team has come to the bay, looking for a community service gig that’ll keep him out of jail. And Mitch, he’s not going to play by your rules, man!
Will these buff statues with about two dozen abs between them ever get along? Do swimsuits come in red?
There are some other incidental plots. One involves a comically flagrant drug smuggling scheme being run by Victoria Leeds (Priyanka Chopra), and the others provide plenty of gags (and seaside sprints) for the rest of the stars, including new recruit Summer Quinn (Alexandra Daddario) and a Beauty and the Schlub romance between CJ (Kelly Rohrbach) and Ronnie (Jon Bass). Yet this is all treated with the same sincerity as the idea of lifeguards acting as a town’s police force. In other words, grab a boogie board and just go with it.
Taken as a whole, Baywatch is less a narrative than a knowing dart board filled with just about every cheap laugh in the book. Some of them land, and some of them bounce off with a thud, but there are so many attempts made that for those audiences who don’t mind playing in the shallow end of the pool, there’s plenty to giggle at even when you should know better.
A particular standout sequence involves Bass’ cartoonishly hopeless Ronnie finding himself in an awkward position when caught between the Rock’s Mitch and a hard place with his crush CJ on the other side as he attempts to remove his manhood from a tightening pair of planks. It’s about as juvenile as any gag in American Pie, and so lowbrow that the film has slipped well beneath sea level by its end and is approaching the Mariana Trench. It’s also relentlessly funny.
Other situations land less gracefully, such as the woefully misjudged idea that a man dressed in drag (Zac Efron here) is still funny in 2017. But by and large, the film’s jejune streak works. This is again greatly enhanced by Johnson’s contagious good humor. Handing out one-liners like the ‘80s never went out of style, and mercilessly dressing down Efron with a slew of boy band nicknames, including One Direction, New Kids on the Block, and *NSYNC (to name but a few), it’s further proof the actor is a born showman.
It’s a shame then that the machinations of the plot require him to disappear for much of the third act, because it’s only when he’s off-screen, and the film isn’t fulfilling its precisely shaped Baywatch obligations, that it becomes evident the picture is running long. At 116 minutes, the movie could be easily 20 minutes shorter, and as affable as Efron is, he works best, as with the Neighbors movies, when he has someone to banter with and play straight man against.
The rest of the cast can be pleasant, but none of them are portraying fleshed out characters, even with all that exposed skin. Obviously, the lead women, including Daddario, Rhorbach, and Ilfenesh Hadera, are stunning whether they’re running in slow-motion or not. Unfortunately, the former is exclusively what’s required of them here, which feels less meta than it does lazy.
Director Seth Gordon (Horrible Bosses) is acutely aware of what type of material this is and makes no attempt to elevate it. 21 or 22 Jump Street, it ain’t. But by diving to its shadier depths, the movie drags out a schlocky comedy filled with plenty of in-jokes at its source material’s expense and opportunities to go for the raunchy jugular. Mostly succeeding at finding that balance between humor and humorous titillation, Baywatch will make for a mildly bawdy summer night on the beach. Just don’t expect to remember too much when that hangover wears off the following morning.