By Joe Hammerschmidt
I was never a considered fan of the somewhat culturally significant, yet still indelibly cheesy 90s TV byproduct “Baywatch”, yet I’ve seen enough episodes in recent months (let’s say one or two) to know how the mechanics work: people with no business being on the water are saved by an elite group of lifeguards in the fictional Floridian town of Emerald Bay. They in turn discover evidence to the suspicious activity which leads to culprits being discovered, and eventually convicted, all while generic pop-rock music plays as the characters run about in their trunks and one-pieces. In the wake of the now long-forgotten reboot of “CHIPs”, I’m still questioning how director Seth Gordon was able to fashion a faithful adaptation of a classic formula here, and know where and how to play the heavy tongue-in-cheek card, and with slightly less effort than Lord Miller tried with the “Jump Street” duology. Despite the results appearing mind-boggling, that doesn’t stop this raunchfest from leaving a salty taste in the mouth if left unprepared.
Two parts straightforward redo, one part freewheeling satire, this “Baywatch” starts out simply enough: venerable ex-military man Mitch Buchannon (Dwayne Johnson) and second-in-command Stephanie (Ilfanesh Hadera) patrol Emerald Bay with a fine-toothed comb. Enter Matt Brody (Zac Efron), decorated Olympic swimming champion with a Lochte-esque streak and a nervous stomach, eager to repair his broken reputation by trying out for vacant positions on the tight-knit squad. The city ordinance, fronted by Captain Thorpe (Rob Heubel) sees it as a double side-winning publicity stunt; Mitch finds it a near waste of his time to train him and fellow newcomers Summer (Alexandra Daddario) and Ronnie (Jon Bass) to the point of efficiency the pair, along with fellow vet C.J. (Kelly Rohrbach) are most comfortable with.
Nobody laughs, however, when a prominent state senator is murdered as the end result of a fire-on-water. They hyper-suspect flamboyant country club owner Victoria Leeds (Priyanka Chopra, in her first major Hollywood live-action role) of burying the lead to promote the splendor of their seaside town, when really she’s fronting a major drug deal; it’s suddenly all hands on deck as the misfit rookies are forced to meddle with a criminal case they weren’t sure was possible, with only finely-choreographed fights, unimitable slow motion played too heavily for laughs, and an overreliance on crotch gags to keep the momentum from stopping cold all at their arsenal. Efron’s character literally grabs a corpse’s genitalia to notice anything out of the ordinary as part of the presumed murder plot; as if one couldn’t flex the R rating enough here, the reminders are not at all subtle.
Therefore, it’s my sorry duty to warn you readers, unlike Jump Street, where at least the below-the-belt humor was subtle and short, this new “Baywatch” possesses a rather lazily written script; blame Damian Shannon and Mark Swift (Freddy vs. Jason), whose collective eye for comic timing could use a strong monocle. The dynamics of each cast member would’ve earned something more substantial; between the killer back and forth of Efron and Johnson, Bass’s fratboyish nerve, Heubel’s sarcastically high-strung demeanor, and Chopra as the catty-yet-spry villain who thinks on her feet, much of what’s on screen doesn’t fit with what the film could’ve been on paper. At times, I could tell these characters may have been transplanted out of what could’ve been a more enjoyable Baywatch picture, that would’ve been less afraid to poke fun at itself.
Closest we get to that is an obligational David Hasselhoff cameo as the original Mitch, Johnson’s Mitch’s one-time mentor, a rather cheap way of connecting continuity. When he did appear on screen, the presence was welcome, yet somehow short-lived. Suffice to say, one can never have enough Hoff in a film these days. For spoilers’ sake, I won’t say much of Pamela Anderson’s appearance, somewhere in the body of the feature.
Judging from whether the bathroom humor or the oft-juvenile tone ought’ve been lessened down so as not to overshadow, the finished product may’ve fared better as the pilot to an edgier Netflix version, with Gordon presiding over it well through that entire first season. He isn’t necessarily a bad director, he just doesn’t always make the best decisions for his career. 2011’s “Horrible Bosses” is still one of the strongest ensemble comedies in this millenium, while 2013’s “Identity Thief” served as the biggest disappointment that year. Taking on “Baywatch” was the right call, yet it was an apparent challenge to take a mediocre story outline, then turn it into solid gold. Yet nobody else could have shown a high enough caliber to still extract moments of comedy which would’ve otherwise felt forced.
For what it’s worth, this film is still naturally funny, even if the writing can’t justify the candor. Johnson and Efron are at the top of their acting game, and the moments they share, especially those to counteract the villain’s motives are what keep the activity grounded. It plays as well as any longer episode of the series would, and it should please any hardcore fan with an open-minded towards modern interpretation. Imperfect as it is, “Baywatch” is the quintessential summer comedy: dumb as they come, funny when it really wants to be, destined for heavy replay at your next 21+ boozy pool party, provided you don’t make the same mistake Brody had done by puking after one too many. Ah, one can dream. (C+)
“Baywatch” opens today at most area theaters; rated R for language throughout, crude sexual content, and graphic nudity; 117 minutes