Baywatch (United States, 2017)

May 25, 2017
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Baywatch Poster

When it comes to resurrecting defunct TV shows as big-screen events, Hollywood has a less than stellar track record. With only a few exceptions, the results are forgettable and, consequently, forgotten. Despite having a legitimate A-list actor at the top of the marquee, Baywatch isn’t about the change the trend. The waterlogged end product is an example of lazy writing and direction with the vague hope that perhaps the involvement of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson will attract viewers. Regardless of whether Baywatch generates sufficient interest to make it profitable, it represents the summer of 2017’s first genuinely awful high-profile box office challenger.

Perhaps the best indicator of what we’re getting with Baywatch could come from examining director Seth Gordon’s track record (at least once he moved past his charming documentary debut, The King of Kong). His one good movie, Horrible Bosses, came out six years ago. He is also responsible for the lackluster Four Christmases and the godawful Identity Thief. The latter has a close kinship with Baywatch, riddled with unfunny humor and pointless, tedious action. Those characteristics define this film and make it, if not unwatchable, a waste of time and money.

It would be foolish to craft a “straight” adaptation of the TV series, which was viewed as cheesy even when it was popular. (Those who watched Baywatch did so for reasons – most of which either jiggled or rhymed with “trough” – other than the writing.) So Gordon and his screenwriters decided to go the 21 Jump Street route of making things openly comedic. However, instead of going for broke and attempting something daring, Baywatch treads water. It adds some raunchy humor that feels desperate and regurgitated, throws in some obvious self-referential gags (“Doesn’t she look like she’s running in slow motion?”), and pulls a lot of punches. Attempts at satire are weak and, although Baywatch frequently pokes fun at itself, the jabs aren’t forceful or vicious.

One key flaw is common in would be action/comedies: too much plot. That wouldn’t be a bad thing if the material was compelling but it’s not. It’s a standard order story about a rich villain with megalomaniacal tendencies (the uber-sexy Victoria Leeds, played by Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra) trying to buy all the coastal land to create a private resort. To do that, she’s not above drug dealing, kidnapping, and murder. The Emerald Bay lifeguard corps, led by Mitch Buchannon (Dwayne Johnson), CJ Parker (Kelly Rohrbach), and Stephanie Holden (Ilfenesh Hadera), begin an investigation, because that’s what lifeguards do when there’s a dead body on their watch. And, while they’re uncovering Victoria’s dastardly scheme, they’re integrating three new recruits into the team. One is a rolly-polly, athletically challenged geek (Jon Bass), another is a competent, drop-dead gorgeous woman (Alexandra Daddario), and the third is a two-time gold medal winning asshole named Matt Brody (Zac Efron).

In addition to spending an inordinate amount of time on the “investigation” (including by-the-numbers action scenes like a rescue at sea and a speedboat chase), Baywatch devotes far too much effort into humanizing Matt and giving him a redemption arc. If the filmmakers’ intention is to satirize this kind of overused plot device, they fail. The movie uses a lot of old pop songs, but misses the most appropriate one: “We Are Family”, because that’s what Matt, a product of the foster care system, is looking for. Gag.

Baywatch has a problem with finding a stable tone. It doesn’t know what it wants to be and, as a result, it stinks like an undercooked stew of rancid, mismatched ingredients. There are some funny moments (mostly related to Mitch’s endless list of Boy Band nicknames for Matt) but there might be 20 minutes of attention span-killing tedium between the chuckles. Many of the laugh-inducing bits are in the trailer, removing any need to sit through the entire film.

The movie acknowledges (how could it not?) that the primary appeal of Baywatch was the eye candy and it has a little fun with this. Alexandra Daddario and Kelly Rohrbach spend most of the movie in bathing suits and a shirtless Zac Efron shows off abs, pecs, biceps, and triceps to rival The Rock’s. The film’s star flashes his white teeth, flexes his muscles, and shows off his charisma, but none of this is enough. David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson have cameos in which they are treated reverentially. (Contrast this with Johnny Depp’s appearance in 21 Jump Street.)

Despite being aware of its existence during the 1990s, I never saw an episode of Baywatch, so I am unable to hazard a guess as to how fans will react to this new incarnation. Viewed as no more than a high-profile summer release, however, it disappoints in almost every way, not succeeding at anything it tries and boring audiences in the process. More than lifeguards in spandex are needed to resuscitate this beached whale.

Baywatch (United States, 2017)

Director: Seth Gordon
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Zac Efron, Priyanka Chopra, Alexandra Daddario, Kelly Rohrbach, Ilfenesh Hadera, Jon Bass, David Hasselhoff
Home Release Date: 2017-08-29
Screenplay: Damian Shannon & Mark Swift
Cinematography: Eric Steelberg
Music: Christopher Lennertz
U.S. Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Run Time: 1:55
U.S. Release Date: 2017-05-25
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Content, Nudity, Violence, Drugs)
Genre: Action/Comedy
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1