Film Review: ‘Baywatch’

Baywatch
Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Playing up the insults and playing down the jiggle, a Dwayne Johnson/Zac Efron revamp of the cheeseball muscle-beach TV series is stupidly entertaining...for a while.

Baywatch,” starring Dwayne Johnson and Zac Efron, is a stupidly entertaining trash folly, the kind that could only be made today: an obscenity-and-insult-laced, aggressively “competent” adaptation of a 25-year-old TV show that manages to repackage every aspect of the series except, perhaps, the reason it was popular in the first place. And what was that reason? If Rodney Dangerfield were around, he might say, “There were two reasons!” But actually there’s a bit more to it.

“Baywatch,” which premiered at the tail-end of the 1980s (and stumbled out of the gate, becoming a hit in syndication the way “Star Trek” did), was a muscle-beach soap opera that anticipated the sexy-youth-kitsch-for-adults appeal of “Beverly Hills 90210.” It was also an L.A. crime series where the law enforcers wore spandex swimwear; a cheeseball star vehicle that revamped the camp-stud Ken-doll mystique of the former “Knight Rider” hero David Hasselhoff; and, yes, an entry in the oxymoronic genre that started a decade before with “Charlie’s Angels” — the prime-time jigglefest.

“Charlie’s Angels” had taken the primped poutiness of ’70s porn goddesses and fed it right into the image of Farrah Fawcett, turning her into a frosted-hair icon of mainstream erotic bliss. “Baywatch,” through the character of Pamela Anderson’s C.J. Parker, did the same thing for the platinum-blonde, cosmetically enhanced, overpriced-party-doll look of the porn stars of the ’80s. You couldn’t show a lot on network TV, but the legendary slow-mo shots of Anderson on the run helped to make “Baywatch” a megahit around the world.

But where does that leave a 2017 movie? The appetite for sanitized cheesecake now seems as trapped in a lost age as an old issue of Playboy — and besides, our era is a little more advanced. Those slow-motion shots are referenced in the movie, but only as a dismissive one-liner. C.J., now played by the non-cartoonish but also slightly colorless Kelly Rohrbach, and her fellow “babe” lifeguard, Summer Quinn (Alexandra Daddario), are smart, hip, centered, and self-aware; they’re 21st-century women who aren’t about to turn into pin-up fodder for losers. They wear their butt-hugging red bathing suits with dignity and pride, which makes this a highly sexually responsible “Baywatch.” C.J., shorn of Anderson’s hardened troubleshooter façade, is so sweet that she actually likes Ronnie (Jon Bass), the jelly-bellied mega-dork who’s got a crush on her. Of course, you might ask: Where’s the fun in that?

“Baywatch,” as a series, now looks jaw-droppingly goofy and harmless (actually, it did then too), and the movie would have been smart to satirize the show’s innocuous underworld drama and cheeseball male gaze, playing up the dated absurdity of it all. But no: The film’s director, Seth Gordon (“Identity Thief”), and its screenwriters, Damian Shannon and Mark Swift, have glommed “Baywatch” onto the theme of the moment: namely, that a bunch of good-looking SoCal lifeguards, devoted to keeping their beach a safe cool magical place, are just like — wait for it! — a family.

Mitch Buchannon (Johnson), the hard-bodied hulk who’s so devoted to his mission that he’s like a drill sergeant crossed with the Buddha, leads a motley crew of lifeguards who seem more than a little like the drag-race crime fighters from the “Fast and Furious” films. They just happen to have safety whistles instead of cars. The first half of the movie goes by in a blur of fractious high spirits, as Matt Brody (Efron), a disgraced bad boy of an Olympic swimmer, tries out for the elite team of lifeguards watching over Emerald Bay. Matt thinks he has automatic entré, because he’s got two gold medals to his name, but actually he has a lot to prove. He was nicknamed “the Vomit Comet” for the moment he ralphed in the pool during an Olympic relay and became an instant national joke.

Mitch is now going to make him earn his place, and their caustic interplay gives the film a sparky buzz of tension. Dwayne Johnson can seem like Tony Robbins playing Superman, but he never phones in a line. His delivery cracks like a whip, so that each time he calls Matt by the name of another boy band, the joke stays fresh.

The plot, however, does not. Mitch has found packets of drugs on the beach; one missing city official and mysterious blazing yacht fire later, it’s clear that there’s a larger criminal scheme in play. Gee, could it have something to do with Victoria Leeds (Priyanka Chopra), the new owner of the Honda Club? Chopra, the crossover Bollywood star, preens and schemes like a vamp from “Dynasty,” and the whole drugs-and-real-estate plot has a musty air of sub-“Miami Vice” intrigue — it’s closer to “Starsky and Hutch.” The trouble is that the movie plays it boringly straight. Seth Gordon, the documentarian-turned-high-concept-comedy-director, throws in one grossly funny scene, in which Mitch and Matt are examining a corpse in the morgue and Mitch — for no good reason — forces Matt to poke around the corpse’s genitals. It’s a conversation-piece gag (in every sense) implanted there to sell the movie, but it’s completely incongruous.

Zac Efron, with his abs so sculpted he’s gone way past a six-pack (it’s more like a checker board), has figured out a way to turn being the beefcake butt of the joke into a shaggy dumb/smart style. That, however, is a joke that could get old fast. And it’s worth noting: In the second half of “Baywatch,” Johnson’s Mitch gets knocked out of the action for a while, and when he does, the movie goes thud. Was it really The Rock who was holding it all together? That and our nostalgic affection for “Baywatch,” which in a movie like this one becomes a form of living off vapors.

Film Review: 'Baywatch'

Reviewed at AMC 34th St., New York, May 10, 2017. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 119 MIN.

Production

A Paramount Pictures release of a Paramount Pictures, Contrafilm, Vinson Pictures, Seven Bucks Productions, Flynn Company, Cold Spring Pictures prod. Producers: Michael Berk, Douglas Schwartz, Gregory J. Bonann, Beau Flynn, Ivan Reitman. Executive producers: Michele Berk, Mary Rohlich, Louise Rosner-Meyer, Tom Pollock, Ali Bell, Dany Garcia, David Ellison, Dana Goldberg, Don Granger.

Crew

Director: Seth Gordon. Screenplay: Damian Shannon, Mark Swift. Camera (color, widescreen): Eric Steelberg. Editor: Peter S. Elliott.

With

Dwayne Johnson, Zac Efron, Priyanka Chopra, Alexandra Daddario, Kelly Rohrbach, Jon Bass, Iifenesh Hadera, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II.

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  1. seems like im watching san andreas part 2 with the “rock” and her “daughter” there..

  2. halias says:

    ‘Our era is a little more advanced.’ Um this is the era of Trump, Keeping Up With The Kardashians and Transformers. Give the 90s some credit!

  3. Baywatch says:

    I watch Baywatch on Tv. It was an excelent serial movie. This Baywatch ….. its worsted. I sorry for fans of this movie.

  4. Lincoln Hawk says:

    So for everyone saying that was no plot… grow up, it’s awesome and hilarious. You don’t like some minor dick jones, hot bods and explosions, then this movie isn’t for you. But if you have a sense of humor, understand what the TV show was and understand it’s not a Ron Howard flick, then it’s awesome! Grow up. I brought my wife to it and we were both wildly entertained, if this movie came out in the early 90s then it would have won every oscar. Think about that… life is about perspective and if you like round house, over the top, Mike and Dave need wedding dates, under siege and all the fast and furious movies then you will love this. If you want to see shutter island the. Do just that, confuse yourself and get lost in philosophy you hipster. If you want to solo drum solo through the whole film and pump your fists theougbout the film and have fun, then this is your movie. Daddy’s got to go to work….

  5. Margarette says:

    We thought Baywatch was funny! A good laugh…exactly what we were looking for in a movie. Oscar worthy? No. Enjoyable? Yes! Not every movie needs to have a message or have us on the edge of our seats.

  6. Natsy says:

    I pity Priyanka -exposing this much for a pittance since 2 years. she had a good life in India . when was her last substantial role ?

  7. Maxine says:

    Sofia Coppola and Seth Gordon should have swapped remakes, with Gordon doing ‘The Beguiled.’ There’s an icky corporate chil in this movie’s “progressive blogger era” abstinence to sandblasted jiggle. I mean, Daddario made her name with explicit ‘True Detective’ shagging, as do so many breakout actresses, from ’50 Shades’ to ‘Dragon Tattoo’ and ‘Inherent Vice.’ Jiggle is only permitted in “subversive” dark fare. Which is an extension on this review’s insight on 70s-80s adult stars, to Sasha Grey hardcore Internet ubiquity. When The Rock can go from this deflated beach ball to running for president, and Pamela Anderson is cuddling with Julian Assange, America needs a lifeguard.

  8. Bill B. says:

    Not a chance I will ever see this in any way, shape or form.

  9. Ben says:

    If Owen cannot find a way to like it than it must be pretty terrible.

    We are solidly at the point in the career of Zac Efron where we can see the decline of his career. His taste in film projects has been thoroughly terrible and miscalculated. While he was once cute, adorable and a little later, an impressively handsome man, he has gone to the next phase, overly muscled – and evoking a slimeball car dealer quality. His hair is obviously thinning now, and his face looking more oddlu feline than adorable as it is stretched into his adult frame.

    Looking ahead, I can see Zac working a lot in television, night time soaps and made for Netflix fare. He might have been a next Robert Redford, but that is clearly not going to happen, because he does not possess either the intelligence or careful taste in projects that Redford has always had.

  10. Murica! says:

    Not surprised. The movie looks disgusting.

  11. 1Ronald says:

    And don’t get all worked up and rushing to go just because Dwayne calls this an “R” rated movie solely because Zac manhandles a male corpse’s private parts. If this doesn’t convince you to save your money and stay home, try this: “While there is no female nudity of any kind, many female characters are in bikini’s. There are a few instances where covered female breasts are shown bouncing. Cleavage is also present throughout.” WhooooooopeeeDoo. Y’all had a chance to do this right, folks. And this is what we got? Maybe someone will give it a shot later. Maybe in a couple of years? And do it right. Glad i got that “R” clarified that is so deeply entrenched in Barf City USA. Maybe that’s Zac’s greatest talent.

  12. 1Ronald says:

    Gleiberman has loads of fun meandering hither and yon with his juxtaposed fancy words to either get his message across or leave the reader hopelessly bogged down in a conundrum of confusion. Mostly thens and nows we land on his “our era is a little more advanced” and can only think “we wish” as the censors from a languishing religious oppression (still allowed in what some people might want to call a progressive society) and still defines what we can see and hear, at least on mainstream TV. You either pay the church’s taxes for them or you trek on over on that Special Day and open your wallets. And we get their media censorship in return. No,not fair play but who’s working to stop it? And back to Baywatch. I have skimmed the article twice and still see no mention of the real Mitch and the real CJ who ostensibly are on camera and included in the movie in cameo roles. Why did we miss them, Owen? The real Mitch. The real CJ. Many may have a problem, perhaps a huge problem, with the characters carrying the same names that made the show. Others, in particular, may add there’s no Mitch without the real Mitch. Right, David? Others may challenge me on this pointing to the lumbering sarcophagus marked up as if he escaped from the Double J Ranch. And remember it was The Mitch who always held the concept together. Without Mitch, there is no Baywatch. Now you, folks, decide which one.

    • RS says:

      Hey, dummy, maybe he left out those cameos because they’re meant to be surprises. Some people still appreciate such things. Just because he doesn’t SPOIL them, doesn’t mean he missed them.

      But seriously, it’s just a review. Can’t people just read the fuckin’ things and MOVE ON?

  13. stevenkovacs says:

    No tits? No thanks!

  14. Pooja says:

    As expected the trailer didn’t impressed much so as the movie.

  15. Cj says:

    Don’t insult Rodney.

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