On paper, Baywatch sounds ripe with guilty pleasure: an update on one of the most popular, and cheesy, TV shows of all time, played for giggles and filled with beautiful people, wearing little. On screen, Baywatch flounders. If you’re hoping for the meta-yet-mainstream smart-stupid fun of the Jump Street movies, lower your expectations. Better still, re-watch the Jump Street movies instead…
It starts slickly enough, with an extended homage to the show’s signature slo-mo style. An all-in-a-day’s-work sea rescue climaxes in the movie’s title rising with tacky grandeur from the ocean, behind the rippling bod of alpha lifeguard Mitch Buchannon (Dwayne Johnson).
Oddly, such OTT flourishes turn out to be few and far between. A couple more might’ve eased the overstretched plod of the plot, which has two strands: one centred on a drug-trafficking op masterminded by slinky villain Victoria Leeds (Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra); the other on drafting and moulding new recruits to the squad.
The ‘thriller’ side of the story is sub-CSI stuff whose mysteries are resolved with feeble ease, while the character-driven scenes don’t have much character, or drive. For all the prattle about the importance of working as a team, Baywatch is really a bromance between Mitch and bad-boy newbie Matt Brody (Zac Efron); no one else gets much of a look in.
There’s an almost-endearing beauty-and-the-geek flirtation between C.J. (Kelly Rohrbach) and ‘tech guy’ Ronnie (Jon Bass) – but they, like several others, flit in and out so much that you almost forget who they are.
Alexandra Daddario’s earnest Summer gets a slightly better deal – or at least more screen time, though she mostly just tags along with Mitch and Matt, offering wide-eyed reaction shots at their exploits.
Daddario’s presence alongside Johnson conjures the spirit of San Andreas, a disaster flick defined by its inadvertent hilarity. Alas, Baywatch isn’t a film to be laughed at, let alone with. Any flair for comic timing director Seth Gordon flexed on is awol here.
It hardly helps that the script (from the writers of, um, ) is awash with zingers with no zing (“Bathtime, shithead!”), clanging in-jokes (“Sounds like an entertaining but far-fetched TV show!”) and lines that aim for ‘edgy’ but are just in poor taste: “You’re like the Stephen Hawking of swimming, without the paralysis part.” Similarly off-colour is a strain of casual homophobia that reaches its nadir in a morgue set-piece.
So, are there any signs of life here? Well, there’s Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (The Get Down) as a cop whose exasperation at Mitch’s antics is Baywatch’s best – only – running joke. He belongs in a better film – with ‘Jump Street’ in the title.