If not for the success of the 21 Jump Street films several years back, we wouldn’t have the big screen reimagining of Baywatch, another tongue-in-cheek comedy based around a campy, oblivious, ostensibly serious television series from the late 20th century. Taking most of its cues from a more consistently hilarious film franchise and inspired by a television series that one could more easily poke fun at, Baywatch doesn’t need to do any heavy lifting to succeed. It’s not as successful as the 21 Jump Street films that it so desperately wants to be, but Baywatch is fine for what it is. It’s a lightweight summer action comedy with aims to entertain and little else. Sometimes that’s all you need, and even though I know Baywatch isn’t a great film, I still felt satisfied with what I got.
Beloved local legend Mitch Buchannon (Dwayne Johnson) takes his job as head lifeguard in the Oceanside community of Emerald Bay very seriously. Leading a team of fellow lifeguards, Mitch and his crew have a penchant for overstepping their duties, stopping waterfront crimes themselves instead of calling in the police. During a yearly hiring period – one where Mitch would prefer people earn their spots on the squad – the team is saddled by PR desperate local brass with Matt Brody (Zac Efron), an unlikable prima donna and Olympic gold medalist swimmer turned drunken burnout. Matt doesn’t particularly want to be there, and doesn’t want to learn a job he has no intention on keeping beyond his court mandated community service, leading to tension between Matt and his co-workers. Mitch and Matt will have to put their differences aside, however, when a local real estate baron (Priyanka Chopra) starts flooding the beaches with a designer drug and killing off her opposition in an effort to drive down property values and build up her own empire.
Baywatch cribs liberally from the 21 Jump Street playbook on more than one surface level. It’s about a designer drug making its way into an innocuous environment. It features a team made up of mismatched “law enforcement officers.” There are plenty of knowing, nodding, and winking references to the ludicrous nature of its own plot and source material (although far less than the 21 Jump Street films had). A good deal of the jokes are potty mouthed and nonsensical. It’s a boy’s club where only the male characters get any chance to display any sort of character development and depth. There are cameos to connect the film to the television series. About the only major difference here, other than the setting (which is also where 22 Jump Street ultimately heads for its climax), is that Mitch and Matt are more typical buddy cop heroes instead of best friends, hating each other for the majority of the film before building a sense of mutual understanding and respect.
In short, it’s not exactly the kind of film that needs two screenwriters and four credited storywriters. Most of what’s written throughout Baywatch isn’t even all that funny if one thinks about it. The jokes, as written, are pretty standard Hard-R rated put-downs, jabs, bawdy gross-outs, and non-sequiturs. Baywatch isn’t as much about the writing as it is about the delivery, and that’s where director Seth Gordon (The King of Kong, Identity Thief, Horrible Bosses) earns almost all of his film’s good will. Gordon’s film isn’t one that really pushes its cast to do things they haven’t done before, but instead gives everyone roles that play to their creative strengths. What emerges isn’t a tightly constructed comedic masterpiece, but a laid back, amiable flick that feels like watching a bunch of actors hanging out and having fun with one another set to a soundtrack packed wall-to-wall with instantly recognizable pop music ditties.
Johnson gets to play a character that’s a magnified reflection of his already larger than life public persona: a quick witted, hard working, well respected goofball that people can’t help but love. Efron similarly embraces the chance to play another self-loathing, high-minded frat-boy type, and while he’s now in danger of becoming a one-trick-pony, he’s still quite good at appearing dazed and confused all the time. Chopra’s villainess exudes sex appeal, strength, and cunning, becoming the only female cast member to rise above the male driven material. The other female members of the Baywatch crew are largely wasted – especially Ilfenesh Hadera as Mitch’s right hand woman and Alexandra Daddario as a new recruit and love interest for Brody – but a budding romance between nerdy new hire Ronnie (Jon Bass, the film’s biggest scene stealer) and veteran lifeguard CJ (Kelly Rohrbach) adds just enough sweetness and warmth that the rest of the film tends to lack.
Gordon has trouble containing Baywatch’s fence swinging zaniness, and two hours in length is really pushing it for a film with dodgy plotting and character development. At the same time, and despite Baywatch never having much momentum or narrative flow, Gordon is a decent enough comedic director to know when gags are working and when they need to be abandoned. The substance (if there ever was any) to Baywatch has been stripped down, but what remains looks like the best bits of the film cobbled together in their most logical order. It’s not award winning filmmaking by any stretch, but for a confectionary summer comedy, it does the trick.
One woefully amateurish looking CGI boat fire aside, the action sequences mostly hit the mark. Watching Johnson have a fistfight against one of the villain’s henchmen in a baby’s nursery is a comic high point, as is the film’s outlandish climax on a fireworks barge. Most of the action here is of the slapstick variety, and very little of it feels like our heroes are ever placed in any sort of real danger, but like everything else in Baywatch, these moments get the job done with a workman’s efficiency.
If it sounds like I am damning Baywatch with the faintest praise, you wouldn’t be wrong. Less than ten hours after watching the film, I have forgotten a majority of everything that happened, but I do remember smiling throughout, giggling quite a bit, and even giving up a few hearty belly laughs. Baywatch is the kind of motion picture that I bear no ill will towards despite knowing that it undoubtedly could have been better. It’s shamelessly trying to replicate the success of a much better film, and it suffers via such comparisons, but at least it’s infinitely better than the dreadfully unwatchable C.H.I.P.S was earlier this year in an attempt to replicate the same successes. Baywatch is relaxed and makes no bones about what it is or isn’t. I doubt I’ll ever have the desire to revisit Baywatch in the same way I want to relive most great comedies, but I don’t regret any of the time I spent watching it, either.