OnScreen Review: 'Baywatch'

Ken Jones

  • OnScreen Chief Film Critic

The remaking of “classic” TV shows into feature films continues, this time with Baywatch, a show that surprisingly ran for 11 seasons from 1989-2001.  I remember it being a flash in the pan on early on in its first season on network television before ratings cratered.  It was cancelled and then repackaged for first-run syndication and went on to become something of worldwide phenomenon, particularly when it added Pamela Anderson to the cast in 1992.  It went through a few iterations of spin-offs, including “Baywatch Nights” and then “Baywatch Hawaii.”  It was an action drama, though you could argue it was more of an action prime time soap.  It was never taken very seriously and had a certain level of camp to it.  As a movie, it has been repackaged as a full on comedy, similar to what happened with 21 Jump Street and Starsky & Hutch.  The end result is mostly unfunny and uninteresting comedy.

The Baywatch lifeguard team, led by Mitch Buchannon (Dwayne Johnson), is a well-respected element of the local community, thanks in large part to the popularity of Mitch due to his outgoing personality and hard work keeping the beaches safe.  Flanked by Stephanie Holden (Ilfenesh Hadera) and CJ Parker (Kelly Rohrbach), the team is holding open tryouts for new members.  The hopefuls include Summer Quinn (Alexandra Daddario) and Ronnie (Jon Bass), a slightly-chubby nerd who harbors a not-so-secret crush on the stunning CJ.  While they earn their way onto the team, another recruit is foisted upon them in the form of Matt Brody (Zac Efron), a two-time Olympic gold medalist who flamed out spectacularly and has to perform community service as part of a plea agreement.  While trying to instill the importance of teamwork in Brody, Mitch and his co-workers have to deal with an increasingly sinister drug element in the form of local property owner Victoria Leeds (Priyanka Chopra).

Openly admitting the comedy is very subjective, there is little here to recommend this film.  While there are a few jokes that land, like Mitch continually referring to Brody in demeaning nicknames while refusing to call him by his real name, most of the time it strains to be funny and fails.  The funniest moments were when the film is making fun of itself and the TV series it is based on, almost winking at the audience that they are in on the joke.  Having scenes that venture into the “Baywatch Nights” territory is a somewhat clever nod to the ridiculousness of the original TV series.

Unfortunately, that self-awareness is not sustained through the whole movie.  In fact, it feels like there are three or four kinds of comedies going on here and they can’t settle on a single tone.  In one scene, the audience is supposed to believe that this team does serious work to keep the beaches clean and safe; another scene where they are berated by a police officer plays up the comedy of how it doesn’t seem to register with them that they are not real cops and that they don’t do investigations.  If the whole film were more in line with the latter of those two scenes, it might have been a better and more consistently funnier film than the one we got; something closer to the 21 Jump Street model.  Actually, any consistent tone would have worked better rather than this.  At times, it seemed like everybody in the cast was in their own version of the movie, with the Jon Bass version decidedly the worst version.

In fact, most of the acting is not bad.  Dwayne Johnson, to his credit, is an actor who is going to give you everything he has, whether it is the Fast and the Furious franchise, Central Intelligence, San Andreas, or this severely lacking material.  Efron is game, but unfortunately his character comes across as composites of his characters from Neighbors and Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates.  It’s unclear from scene to scene if his character is supposed to be indifferent, dumb, or a self-destructive drunk.  Kelly Rohrbach is more than just a supermodel in a bikini, showing off a few comedic chops.  Daddario and Hadera don’t get much to do, outside of Daddario being annoyed by Brody’s advances.  Bass, who acquitted himself well in a supporting role in last year’s Loving, gives a painfully broad performance as the awkward-fitting Ronnie.  Chopra’s villain, sadly is not that effective, actually saying at one point that she’s not a Bond villain, yet.  Of course, there are also cameos from David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson, with Hasselfhoff actually getting to be in one of the better scenes of the winking parody version of the film in as Johnson’s Mitch has a heart-to-heart with the Hoff’s Mitch.

Like the TV series, the film seems to be as much about ogling the actors and actresses in their bathing suits as anything else.  There are hints of would could have been a path to a halfway decent comedy, but it’s unable to commit to what it wants to be.  Baywatch is a B-level comedic remake of a B-level TV series.  In that way, it’s appropriate that it is a belly flop at the box office. 

Rating: 1 out of 5 stars