Baywatch can’t decide what movie it wants to be. Is it a foul-mouthed, satiric send up of the long-running cheeseball T&A fest (the easy comparison is 21 Jump Street)? Or is it an earnest action drama about a ragtag group of lifeguards becoming a family and saving their beach? The attempt to be both ultimately drags director Seth Gordon’s (Identity Thief) film down to drown in the watery depths.
Baywatch begins with a gloriously over-the-top scene of Mitch Buchannon (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson taking over the mantle from David Hasselhoff) leaping into action to save a wayward beachgoer. Behind him, the title literally erupts from the water as dolphins dance in the sky. This is a man who rules the beach. Every morning, a dude shows up to erect a new sand sculpture of the heroic lifeguard—though the pecs and dick could be bigger.
When Baywatch sticks to this—mainly, The Rock doing that fast-talking wise-ass shtick he does so well, which is really just an extension of the skills honed as a professional wrestler—it’s super fun. You don’t get anything unexpected, and the crude humor isn’t everyone’s double chocolate protein shake, but it’s a reasonably good time.
But two huge issues turn Baywatch from a fun summertime romp into a tedious slog. First, the plot manages to be both convoluted and overstuffed at the same time it’s paper thin. Second, it’s brutally overlong.
The story primarily revolves around Matt Brody (Zac Efron), a disgraced former Olympic swimmer, joining the Baywatch team as a PR win. Mitch, of course, disagrees with this move, and has to teach Brody, who’s defining character traits are his inability to work as part of a team and his chiseled abs, how they do things on this beach. (I joked in advance that, good or bad, my Baywatch review was just going to be a video of me doing sit-ups and weeping; I really need to get to the gym.)
In the more comic scenes, Mitch and Brody’s back and forth bickering delivers what all the marketing promises: lots of ball talk and smart-ass macho posturing. But holy shit, interspersed into all of the shenanigans and wackiness, over-serious, heartfelt scenes try to make Brody grow as a person only to bring the pace to a shrieking halt and kill any forward momentum. Knowing the script has six credited writers, it makes a great deal of sense that the finished product winds up a complete tonal mishmash that flip flops between light and breezy, overly dramatic, and near-gritty action (?) from one scene to the next.
And I haven’t even started with the primary antagonist, Victoria Leeds (Priyanka Chopra), a drug-dealing real estate developer who has her own drawn-out plan to privatize the beach. It’s seriously the plot of an ‘80s teen movie where a scrappy group of underdogs have to save the beach from the rich kids. But that doesn’t even really kick in until like an hour deep into a movie that’s almost two hours long for some damn reason.
While the script spends most of its time time on the central bromance, no one else has anything else to do. Especially the female characters, who are somehow less integral to the plot than in the series. Alexandra Daddario plays Summer (Nicole Eggert’s role on the show), who gets a few fun moments tormenting Brody, but little else. Baywatch enlists Kelly Rohrbach to fill out Pamela Anderson’s CJ Parker role, which primarily consists of giving Jon Bass’ Ronnie a boner. Ronnie, himself, exists chiefly to get boners and be the schlubby comic relief amidst the slow-motion-running hardbodies, a task that grows tedious after a scene or two. And Ilfenesh Hadera’s Stephanie Holden has like three lines and disappears for the bulk of the movie. Any of these characters could be excised without losing anything substantive.
I get that we’re updating Baywatch here, and I don’t expect well-rounded characters, intricate storytelling, or a ton of insight into the human condition. It has one thing it needs to do well, and that’s be funny. At least when The Rock is on screen, it largely accomplishes this. But any time he’s absent, it’s painful to watch—the other characters are even less interesting without him to bounce off, and it’s readily apparent that his charisma drives everything.
Baywatch tries to have it multiple ways. It wants to be a slow-motion jiggle party like the original, but also a self-aware send up of the campy TV series. It wants to be goofy and fun, but have an earnest emotional core. It wants to be light and fluffy, but also action-packed. In trying to be everything, it fails to accomplish anything aside from a few thin chuckles, and the result looks a lot like a bloated corpse that washed up on the beach. [Grade: C-]