Baywatch and all the images you see in this review are owned by Paramount Pictures
Directed by Seth Gordon
I may not know much about the Pamela Anderson/David Hasselhoff series, but if there’s one thing I do know it’s how much I LOVE Dwayne Johnson and how much I REALLY LIKE Zac Efron! Both these guys don’t always get the credit they deserve for just how good they are with the former’s career mostly consisting of crowd pleasing popcorn flicks and the latter having a pretty rocky career; alternating between decently received comedies and underperforming dramas. While I may not have an affinity for the series that this is directly based off of, I can appreciate a lot of what I saw in the trailers leading up to this and it seemed like a possible bright spot in a year that really hasn’t been that great for comedies so far. Does this send up a nineties television landmark manage to be a 21 Jump Street style success, or did this franchise really peak with Pamela Anderson and David Hasselhoff running in slow motion? Let’s find out!!
In Emerald Bay Florida, there is a team of elite lifeguards, led by Mitch Buchannon (Dwayne Johnson) that saves people, stop thieves, and pick up litter to ensure the happiness and wellbeing of their beach’s visitors. We enter the story just as they’re about to start recruiting some newbies and a hotshot Olympic swimmer named Matt Brody (Zac Effron) is there to assume one of the spots as he has a letter from the local government guaranteeing him a position. Mitch takes him on board, but the road to being a TRUE member of Baywatch, which currently includes Stephanie Holden and CJ Parker (Ilfenesh Hadera and Kelly Rohrbach) as well as two other newbies Summer Quinn and Ronnie (Alexandra Daddario and Jon Bass), he’ll have to prove that he’s more than just a good swimmer as this job takes dedication, heart, and a true commitment to protecting those who depend on them! In fact, the whole team will have a chance to prove just that as local entrepreneur Victoria Leeds (Priyanka Chopra) is up to no good and is letting the remnants of her criminal activity (drugs and dead bodies) wash up on THEIR beach! Oh, now this will not STAND; especially when you’ve got Mitch “The Rock” Buchannon on the case! Will the Baywatch crew be able to stop Victoria’s evil schemes before it’s too late? Will Matt finally learn to think of others and be part of a team? Just how much chiseled pecks and bodacious babes can they cram into one movie!?
This movie is better than I had any realistic hope for it being, but it still didn’t quite live up to the potential that it had with its amazing cast. Now the film was probably gonna get a soft pass from me simply by having Dwayne Johnson in it, and while Zac Efron isn’t quite as untouchable (*cough* Dirty Grandpa *cough*) he’s usually a welcome presence in these kind of comedies as well. What puts this movie ABOVE that and why it’s better than many of its raunchy comedy peers is that the film has a level of sincerity for the source material an optimistic message about doing the right thing that really does resonate and kept me invested all the way through its bloated two hour running time. It does manage to lose steam towards the end when we’re in the Pineapple Express style blow em’ up action finale and there are some subplots that feel a bit aimless and repetitive, but the solid humor and unimaginably strong charisma radiating off the entire cast keeps it all together. That and we get to see plenty of Dwayne Johnson and Zac Efron with their shirts off which is a point in its favor.
Now to be fair, the movie is SUPER bro-tastic and is very obviously from a male gaze, but the movie is trying very hard to excise all the cynicism that is usually built into movies made that way. We get the slow motion shots of Kelly Rohrbach at least a dozen times in this, but all the female members of Baywatch are given SOMETHING to do other than to just act as sex objects. It’s not always successful as Kelly Rohrbach OUTSIDE of the slow-mo shots is mostly left as a plot device for Jon Bass’s storyline (he wants to bang her) but she’s also given several opportunities to prove that she is a fantastic life guard and the film does its best to thread the needle of her being objectified by the camera while commanding respect from everyone in the movie. She’s probably the worst example of the female objectification though, and while Alexandra Daddario and Ifenesh Hadera don’t COMPLETELY escape the movie without lingering shots of their boobs and asses, it’s clear the movie wanted the obvious Baywatch gag to only go so far; acknowledging and celebrating the obvious but also giving us characters with lots of dimension to them.
That’s where the movie works the best; when it’s about these characters on the beach doing their Baywatch best which is a huge portion of the first two acts. Sure, you’re mileage is gonna vary depending on how endearing these characters are to you (I could watch Dwayne Johnson eat a ham sandwich and be entertained), but the movie’s humor doesn’t feel like isolated and random comedy bits as they do organic experiences these characters in this environment would go through, and it’s hardly even trying to go for the low brow cheap shots that are the hallmark of other raunchy comedies. Okay, there ARE some low brow jokes (a decent if prolonged one is fairly early in the movie) but this feels so much more character based than its peers and the everyone feels properly motivated in what they’re trying to do here. Dwayne Johnson is the big fish swimming in his own small pond who is constantly feeling the restraints of the world outside his little fiefdom while Zac Efron is a washed up has been who still needs to learn why everything in his life is falling to pieces. Alexandra Daddario, Kelly Rohrbach, and Ifenesh Hadera clearly believe in what they do and never hesitate to help others who are in danger. Jon Bass… okay, he’s straight up comic relief as the funny fat guy, but there’s a little more to it in that Dwayne Johnson (and even Kelly Rohrbach) really do believe that he has what it takes to be a great lifeguard even if he doesn’t have the traditional physique. For every REALLY bad No-Homo joke (of which there are three or four) or comedy bit that just doesn’t go anywhere, there’s a joke that works REALLY well about by characters that are at least more interesting than what we usually get from these kinds of movies.
Where things start to fall apart unfortunately is whenever we get to the plot itself involving the Baywatch crew having to solve the big case; mostly because it feels so slapdash and doesn’t make any sense despite the movie spending so much time explaining it. MAYBE if the movie was more like a Blazing Saddles style spoof where the absurdity of Hedley Lamarr’s plan matched the silliness of everything else on screen, then it could have worked here. Instead, we have this weird disconnect where the movie is exaggerated to the nines, yet for the big action finale (which does NOT include a pie fight), the movie needs to set these villains up as a legitimate threat; creating a disconnect of sorts between what we’re seeing from the Baywatch crew and how the bad guy manages to handle it. Not only that, but this movie has one of my biggest pet peeves which are cops who stick their fingers in their ears and ignore everything that they are being presented for absolutely no reason. They have a guy who, if NOTHING else, assaulted a few people and broke into a house, but the cops let them go because “there’s not enough evidence” or some bullshit. They try to justify it somewhat at the end, but I cannot stand movies that do stuff like this just to keep the plot going. If a movie wants to have a story about solving a crime that leads to a big action packed finale, I expect it to be at least as good as other films like it; whether or not this is a comedy or a spoof. The film clearly had money and there was some sharp writing for the rest of the script, so the fact that they dropped the ball here is a huge mark against it. I also felt that Zac Efron’s character arc was oddly paced as he kept on having the same revelations about how he’s been acting, but it wasn’t until the third or fourth time he was taught a lesson that it actually seemed to stick. It’s not a HUGE issue (at least compared to the other problems this movie has), but it felt like it took time away from the movie that could have been put to better use elsewhere.
I don’t think this movie is going to be for everyone and I cannot speak to how Baywatch fans will react to it, but for the most part I enjoy watching Dwayne Johnson smile his way through comedy action films, and he tends to choose ones that are at least a little bit better than ones. This is another example of that which is held up even more by a cast that’s ALMOST (but not quite) as charismatic as the embodiment of all things good and bulky in the world. You could honestly wait until the movie gets a home release and just subside off of Mr. Johnson’s other work until then (Pain & Gain won’t rewatch itself!), but if you see it at the theater you probably won’t be disappointed. I mean we only get to see his pectorals what, three or four times a year on the big screen!? That should in front of EVERY movie, right before the TURN OFF YOUR PHONE message!!