Baywatch is back! The hugely popular TV show about a team of ridiculously good-looking lifeguards – and David Hasselhoff – has made the transition from small-screen to celluloid. In this big-budget version, the Baywatch boys and girls uncover villainous activity on their beach, and go rogue to take down an international drug smuggler.
Adapting a TV Phenomenon
Having debuted in 1989, Baywatch was a television mainstay throughout the 1990s. By combining beautiful people and locations with gratuitous slow-motion and storylines that could have been written by a five-year-old, it quickly became the biggest show on the planet.
This belated film adaptation endeavours to give Baywatch a post-modern spin, paying homage to the show while at the same time poking fun at its more ridiculous traits. However, the dialogue isn’t sharp enough, the plot painfully dull, and way too many of the jokes fall flat.
The storyline divides into two sections that dramatically split the film. The first 30-minute stretch is concerned with Baywatch try-outs, and is easily the film’s best segment. The established lifeguards are Mitch (Dwayne Johnson), Stephanie (Ilfenesh Hadera) and C.J. (Kelly Rohrbach). Those attempting to join the team are Brody (Zac Efron), Summer (Alexandra Daddario) and Ronnie (Jon Bass).
It’s all a bit Police Academy, the recruits participating in a series of trials, being hazed by lifeguards old and new, and getting involved in real-life rescues, some of which director Seth Gordon shoots with real action-movie panache.
It’s exciting, amusing stuff. A few too many boner gags maybe, but the laughs come thick and fast, either at the expense of Ronnie’s unfortunate demeanour, or via tension between Mitch and Brody.
A Plot That’s Pretty Terrible
Then the plot proper kicks in, and Baywatch becomes much less watchable. Taking its cue from the show’s more edgy episodes, a local hotelier acts suspiciously at much the same time that drugs and dead bodies start washing up on the shore.
With the police failing to act, the lifeguards spring into slow-motion action, investigating a criminally predictable criminal plot, and uncovering a conspiracy that it’s pretty much impossible to care about.
Along the way, there are multiple action and comic set-pieces, but very few of them seem to make sense. Mitch fights a guy in a child’s bedroom for no discernible reason other than to use kid toys as weapons. Brody dresses in drag just so we can point and laugh at Zac Efron in heels and make-up. Things like this just seem to happen, only vaguely in service to the plot, and very rarely raising a laugh.
The film is filled with coincidence and contrivance, which could be forgiven if the characters acted with any kind of consistency, but they are all over the place. Is Mitch a good guy or a bully? Is Ronnie in love with C.J., or a creepy stalker? Behaviour switches to suit whatever joke is being set up or paid off, making it hard to care about the characters and their plight. Particularly when the stakes become life-and-death in the final few scenes.
Villain That’s Genuinely Awful
It doesn’t help that the villain is TERRIBLE. Bollywood superstar Priyanka Chopra plays the drug smuggler in question, and she manages to fumble pretty much every one of her – admittedly pretty ropey – lines. A larger-than-life baddie played by a scenery-chewing star might have made the part work, but as it stands you’re desperately waiting for her scenes to end.
The rest of the women in the cast are fine, but their characters barely have personalities, and depressingly but somewhat predictably, the ladies are given very few of the best lines.
Dwayne Johnson is as charismatic as ever in the lead, and it’s always fun watching him have fun onscreen. Efron – playing a none-too-subtle riff on Olympic bad-boy Ryan Lochte – delivers pretty much the same performance he’s been doing for a while now, combining ego with ignorance and abs. But it’s no less effective.
Jon Bass is the butt of most jokes, but duly delivers a masterclass in physical comedy. And Yahya Abdul-Mateen II – so good as the disco-dancing villain in The Get-Down – steals pretty much every scene he’s in as the cop desperate for the lifeguards to leave his beat.
But while those performances are good, too often the material is not.
Is Baywatch Good?
It’s easy to take a film like Baywatch too seriously. But in this instance, it feels like the filmmakers didn’t take the job seriously enough. Case in point – 21 Jump Street. That film was a belated update of similarly silly source material. And as with Baywatch, the resulting movie poked fun at the original while trying to function as an action-comedy in its own right.
But the characters were treated with respect in 21 Jump Street. They acted like three-dimensional human beings rather than two-dimensional caricatures, and they were dropped into a story that was both compelling and entertaining. And, perhaps most importantly, the film’s many jokes landed on a consistent basis.
Baywatch is an inferior adaptation in every way, shape and form, failing as either spoof, reboot, or future franchise-starter. It’s a tone-deaf exercise that – save for some decent performances and a solid opening 30 – simply doesn’t work.