Here’s my knee-jerk reaction to Seth Gordon’s Baywatch reboot: “This cast is onto something!” Dwayne Johnson is so passionate about playing Mitch Buchannon (in David Hasselhoff’s wake), down to his deranged insistence that lifeguards are deputized beach police. You’ll find laughs, zaniness and plenty of signature slow-motion jiggling, but it’s buried under a burdensome two-hour procedural.
Back-to-back scenes often feel like they’re penned by two wholly different writing teams, as Gordon wrestles with tonal ambiguity like flailing octopus tentacles. Wrapped around one arm are repetitive genitalia “jokes,” while straight-faced seriousness binds the other. Either way Gordon pulls, the other side snaps right back. This just ain’t the 21-Jump-Street-at-sea everyone dreamed of, unfortunately.
We meet Johnson’s Lieutenant Buchannon as Baywatch prepares for another year of tryouts. Hopeful lifeguards like star-cadet Summer Quinn (Alexandra Daddario) and big dreamer Ronnie Greenbaum (Jon Bass) compete for a spot on the sunscreened squad. Then, to the surprise of everyone, 2-time Olympic medalist Matt Brody (Zac Efron) rolls up on his motorcycle. Brody’s all flash and no teamwork, holding a trainee pass thanks to political string-pulling. So begins another season of dead bodies, bribery and a Flocka drug problem that pollutes Buchannon’s shores. Sounds like a job for local law enforcement, right? Wrong. Not on Buchannon’s watch. Not on Baywatch turf (er…sand).
What Gordon and his sandbox of writers get right about Baywatch is this insane idea that Buchannon’s team can get away with anything. Lifeguards – in reality – sit atop towers and make sure swimmers don’t drown. There’s no such thing as “jurisdiction,” as Sgt. Ellerbee (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) – with increasing frustration – reminds the Baywatch gang. Buchannon, CJ Parker (Kelly Rohrbach), Stephanie Holden (Ilfenesh Hadera) – these are people breaking numerous laws in the unnecessary pursuit of justice, but they own their puppy-dog ambivalence. Some of the best shots involve a dumbfounded Ellerbee and Captain Thorpe (Rob Huebel) grasping for words as Buchannon explains how another stakeout or infiltration went awry (destroyed docks, broken houses, trespassing). Confused, bewildered and hilariously in the right.
Unfortunately, the film’s “simple-minded” humor is more off-putting than schocktastic. Specifically, how every joke needs to be punctuated by a “fuck” or phallic emphasis. I mean *every*. Dick comments pollute Baywatch‘s pristine waters without a nude beach in sight. Writing leans on juvenility with crutch-breaking force, swapping wit for skimpy swimsuits. An opening boner gag turns into a cock-and-balls-jammed-between-wooden-lounge-chair-panels routine within the film’s first breaths, and we’re immediately clued into the raunch-factor to follow. Dead dicks, innuendos, swinging junk assertions – you get the point. I’m no prude, but comedy needs to be written by both male brains (without the locker room feel, too). Baywatch is just one raging hard-on slathered in tanning oil.
To be fair, brief misdirections veer away from dude humor. Case and point: a weird obsession with bodily fluids clouding pool water (crap, maybe not that). Or Efron’s blatant staring at Daddario’s chest region (bad example). Or, um, a shower scene where – wait, no. That’s another dick joke. Oh! There’s the funny lunch scene where the fat guy gets a salad and all the fit characters are eating carbs? That’s it. This is Baywatch‘s reality. Imagine a baby’s diaper if said baby ate a five-course Thai meal, and somehow Baywatch is still dirtier. Younger audiences may applaud such devotion to wiener material and a general “no fucks given” attitude, but it’s unsustainable at two hours. And trust me, characters give no fucks. They’ll echo that phrase. A lot.
Lost amidst all the attention paid to Ronnie’s python is a story that connects no dots nor offers explorable depth. Granted, it’s Baywatch. I know. But you can’t introduce Brody’s motivational background – community service after getting into legal trouble – and then never reveal his crime. Or introduce Priyanka Chopra as the sultry villain who’s using “The Huntley Club” as a front for nefarious deeds, and then never really describe what “The Huntly Club” is. A country club, by deduction?
An iPhone is used to record evidence in one scene and is broken, then in another scene characters stumble upon proof and NO ONE snaps a pic!? You’ll forget certain lifeguards even exist despite Buchannon voicing the importance of a rounded team – Holden disappears for long spells – which is strange given how there are only six main characters. Baywatch somehow tangles the most oversimplified plot, distracting itself with another floppy donger when connectivity is needed.
My frustration here stems from the fact that casting is spot-on. Johnson is a hulking ringer as Lt. Buchannon (mysterious lifeguard ranking included), as displayed when the film’s title emerges from underwater. Daddario isn’t given much to do but flaunt her “assets,” yet she still sells her rookie devotion with ample charisma. Rohrbach nails the Pamela Anderson run, Efron works his bro-charms as a renegade Bode Miller prototype, Hadera is a notable #2 to Johnson – even Bass makes the most of his dad-bod approved, Hebrew-school hero. Jokes may be typical “fat kid becomes a lifeguard” material, but Bass sells it with gusto. There’s no lack of commitment, which leaves hope for the future.
Every part of me wants Baywatch to do well, because a Baywatch sequel would offer a chance to tighten mechanics. Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant notch story credit here (hence a very Reno: 911! Miami vibe), yet it feels like Damian Shannon and Mark Swift tried to “serious” the hell out of their original – seemingly more laughable – script. Or maybe the other way around, even. All the different screenplay iterations can be felt, which is never a good thing. Even with a fireworks-blasting finale that attempts to go out in a distracting explosion of Johnson’s Aquaman-esque charisma (that closing monologue, thugho).
Seth Gordon’s cast of hardbodies may be in peak physical condition (Efron’s got garden snakes for veins), but Baywatch‘s story spills over bikini bottoms like a sea of fluffy muffin tops. The longer scenes drag on, the worse tonal confusion becomes. Please let a sequel happen because Dwayne Johnson’s squad deserves better. Baywatch built a legacy on made-for-TV sex appeal – slow-motion signatures, most obvious – but this is just a kindergarten throwaway. Dwayne Johnson’s new team needs a second chance – just make sure the writers keep it in their pants this time.
Baywatch may promote a cast of (mostly) hardbodies, but its two-hour length is bloated to a point where no push-ups or dietary restrictions can help.