Calvin Law reviews the big-screen remake of the famed TV series.
Released in UK cinemas after a week of critical derision and financial disappointment, Seth Gordon’s Baywatch has been followed with considerably less fanfare than might be expected from a Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and Zac Efron double-bill of beach antics. Based on the 1990s’ guilty-pleasure television show, it feels very much like a sitcom episode stretched out into a feature-length film; though for all its flaws , it’s not quite the disaster one might be expecting.
The titular Baywatch is an elite division of lifeguards at Emerald Bay, Florida, dedicated to keeping the beaches safe. Led by Lt. Mitch Buchannon (Johnson taking on the role made famous by David Hasselhoff), who patrols the sands and shorelines with fellow Baywatch veterans Stephanie (Ilfenesh Hadera) and C.J. (Kelly Rorbach), the team is presented as very much the backbone of the community, to the mild consternation of local cop Ellerbee (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). As the annual trials for lifeguard trainees (one of the most cultivated positions in Emerald Bay, so it seems), three new members of the team are introduced: bumbling Ronnie (Jon Bass), brainy Summer Quinn (Alexandra Daddario), and hotshot Matt Brody (Zac Efron), a disgraced two-time Olympic Gold medalist joining the team as part of a plea deal. Unsurprisingly, Brody and Mitch almost immediately come to verbal blows with one another, and the rest of the predictable plot – which throws them into investigating a drug-smuggling conspiracy – has them learning how to work together, and Brody learning to work within a team.
The main issue with the film is that the story never really comes together. The investigation of Priyanka Chopra’s devious club owner Victoria Leeds and her syndicate has its individual moments, but more often than not they are comedic skits that take place outside the main plot framework, which is flimsy at best at downright disordered at worst. The takeover of Emerald Bay by Leeds and co. spells doom, and people die, but it’s all done in such an uninteresting fashion that I really did not care by the end. Chopra, to her credit, tries her best to make something of her role, but ultimately this side of things bogs down proceedings more than one would like.
Outside these scenes, which are directed in a workmanlike and bland fashion, the film lights up considerably. Seth Gordon, from what I’ve seen of his filmography, is not much of a director, and – like Horrible Bosses – this film comes to life when he steps back and lets the cast do the heavy lifting. Neither of the two leads stray too far from their usual comic routines, but that works just fine for this film. Johnson is, as always, larger than life and an endearing ball of charisma and energy. Efron, who in my books is an underrated actor, is given an extremely predictable character arc, but is nevertheless consistently funny and occasionally hilarious in portraying Brody’s utter lack of humility and excess of frat boy idiocy. There are occasional moments where the script forces them into corners – Johnson has to sometimes uncomfortably swerve from dramatics to ill-timed jokes within the same scene, and Efron dresses in drag at one point for no discernible reason – but they never let its weaknesses drag them down, remaining a fine comic pairing throughout.
Bass, outside of an early and deeply unfunny bawdy joke, makes quite a charming schmuck and gets some of the best lines. Rorbach’s C.J. elicited quite a few chuckles with her cheekily warm-hearted take on Pamela Anderson’s iconic character. And while Daddario, in contrast, is perhaps a little bland when placed against her co-stars, she has a nice enough dynamic with the rest of the cast and is never distractingly bad. Really, I would not have minded a whole film just centered on the humorous dysfunctional family antics of these characters. The script always seems at its most awkward when it separates its players into fulfilling the motions of the plot. This is perhaps best exemplified by the sequence in Leeds’ club: the scenes involving the team’s espionage shenanigans feel very dull and routine, and it’s Ronnie dancing, Brody and Mitch verbally sparring, and Hannibal Buress doing his Hannibal Buress thing that are the high points.
It’s true that in many ways the film feels like a funny sitcom episode padded with dull plot stuffing to fill out a feature film run time. It’s not, strictly speaking, a good film. Yet I can’t deny that for the most part, I had a good time. The issues with the plot are easily disregarded if you focus more on how much fun and energy the cast are bringing out of the generic script and uninspired direction. And even as the Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer continues its downwards spiral to rival Efron’s body fat percentage, it’s hard to deny its charms as an enjoyable enough day at the beach. Just don’t look too close at what’s in the water.
Baywatch is out now in UK cinemas. See the red-band trailer below: