Baywatch is weird as hell.
Occasionally, this oddness is inspired – the entire movie is essentially a beat-for-beat 21 Jump Street redux, from the plot structure (which follows new recruits through tryouts into an investigation regarding a local drug magnate), to the moderately enthused aping of the action genre, to the mildly successful attempts at crafting its own set pieces. The picture’s pumped to the max – coming from the same “bigger is better” Beverly Hills Cop II school of anti-reality Tony Scott perfected for Jerry Bruckheimer. Only it’s the Cannon Films version of that – shakily crafted, with a been there done that Turkish imitator vibe which nevertheless owns its own brand of goofiness outright. Baywatch is a movie Jenko would dream up while staking out teenage pot slingers after class, or while high after dosing on Holy Shit!
With Dwayne Johnson starring front and center in the Mitch Buchannon role David Hasselhoff made (in)famous, Baywatch becomes this odd marriage between meathead '80s machismo (think Commando-era Schwarzenegger) and modern parody comedy. Johnson is now eternally married to Hobbs – his baby oil slathered wonder in the Fast & Furious franchise. There are other great action outings on his resume (The Rundown comes to mind), and some true stinkers (San Andreas). But Baywatch wisely puts Samoan Thor in spandex, sending him diving off cliffs to save drowning beauties and calling Zac Efron’s Gold Medal-winning pledge every boy band under the sun instead of his real name (Matt Brody). Director Seth Gordon’s reinvention doesn’t even try to play it down, having Johnson punch out a thug at one point while coldly uttering “time to go night night”. The movie knows exactly what sandbox (sorry, not sorry) it's playing in (right down to a flashy, DTV thrill-worthy one-take during Brody’s earliest rescue), but is also poking fun at a trashy TV soap most only remember for its shots of Pam Anderson running in slo-mo.
That’s where some of the movie’s missteps come under the microscope. One of the running gags is that these beach bums keep showing up to crime scenes and investigating shady goings-on at a faster rate than the local police. After all, they’re “just lifeguards goddammit”. The childishness never hits MacGruber heights; a similar send up which embraced an abrasive crudeness that borders on anti-comedy. What remains is a work at odds with itself – delivering an astute awareness regarding genre tropes with an almost winking sense of condescension regarding the series from which it takes its name. The right balance is never struck, and the actual action that breaks out over the course of its two-hour runtime never escalates beyond being intriguing set piece ideas. A fist/gunfight on a fireworks barge during the movie’s climax makes you wish they either would’ve committed just a little bit more, or kept that one in the top drawer for the next straight-ahead entry into the canon.
We need to talk about Zac Efron, because he’s becoming something of a freak, physically. When Brody first proves himself to the existing lifeguard team, he does so via feats of strength that reveal a near superhuman physique. The disgraced champion eventually even punches Mitch in the face, and though part of your brain goes “he just punched The Rock”, you also wonder if that right hook actually hurt Samoan Thor. Efron’s psychotic Ken Doll renders his comedic timing all the more disarming. Where Johnson is undoubtedly playing on his preexisting tough dude persona, Efron is leaning into the bro-ier aspects of his established screen presence. He’s the consummate frat boy – only instead of raising hell with his neighbors, here he puked in the pool and fucked up his own post-Olympics career. There’s a sadder past to this boozy merman, which lends Baywatch an oddly humanistic cadence. No, for real. I’m not kidding.
If anyone walks away from this unpretentious minute muncher with a bit of shame on their skin, it’s Jon Bass, whose former computer tech-cum-lifeguard (they have a JV Mission: Impossible thing going) plays like a role Dan Fogler would’ve taken in a mid-aughts Dane Cook vehicle (Josh Gad’s agent must not have answered that fateful Tuesday). He’s the stock screwball Jewish sidekick that gets into a dance off with Priyanka Chopra’s gorgeous kingpin. While the Indian goddess brings a (sadly underutilized) brainy charisma to every scene that feels fit for a better picture, Bass’ pepperoni-nippled Ronnie is telling her that he learned to dance at Hebrew School. It’s just one of several regressively-minded gags that feel like they’ve been kicking around since the late '90s (perhaps from an unused teen sex comedy script penned by co-producer Eli Roth). Bass certainly goes for broke, shrieking like a newborn covered in afterbirth as his Baywatch crush (Kelly Rohrbach) walks in on him showering naked (for whatever reason) in the guards’ co-ed locker room. Ronnie’s going to be a make-or-break proposition for most, as half the movie I chuckled at Bass’ delivery, while the other made me cringe as I politely waited for the scene to end.
Is Baywatch any good? I guess. Does it matter? Unclear, to be honest. Baywatch could’ve been a total disaster (and will certainly take a shellacking by many critics), but the fact that it’s as diverting as it is while running at half-speed more speaks to the pleasing re-evaluation pop culture is starting to apply to the golden age of action cinema (Edgar Wright’s upcoming Baby Driver being the qualitative apex of this mainstream reconsideration). The reverence shown to these buddy cop and chase film bonanzas becomes infectious, even if the jokes don’t land each time. So while it’ll certainly be easy for many to write the picture off as a shameless satirical exercise, it still packs enough chuckles to warrant at least a Saturday matinee. This is an alpha male showdown with palm trees flanking their glistening figure, readymade for spliffed-out viewing when you don’t feel like dealing with whatever caped wonder is playing in the auditorium next door.