When trouble strikes in the water or on the sand, an elite team of lifeguards takes action, saving lives, capturing thieves, and stopping killers. Ridiculous as that sounds, this premise formed the basis of the much-beloved nineties television beach-drama Baywatch, running for eleven seasons and introducing the world to the unisex term “Baywatch Babe”. Underneath it all, Baywatch told stories of loyalty and family; stories that resonated with home viewers. Sixteen years since its final episode, Baywatch returns reimagined as an action comedy directed by Seth Gordon (Horrible Bosses/Identity Thief) with a cast of actors more than capable of carrying on the Baywatch brand. Baywatch initially feels like an unasked for, altogether unnecessary adaptation of a show whose bulk audience can’t take their kids to see an R-rated romp; yet, it contains some wonderful surprises that are sure to delight summer audiences, just in a different way than the original series did.
Lead by Lt. Mitch Buchannon (Dwayne Johnson), the BAYWATCH team patrol Emerald Bay from dangers oceanic and human. While breaking in three new trainees, they investigate a series of seemingly connected murders and their relationship to local business woman Victoria Leeds (Quantico’s Priyanka Chopra). With the police prostate under the heel of Leeds, it’s up to Buchannon and his team to make the bay safe again by any means necessary.
By all accounts, Baywatch should be terrible. Why? Let’s go through the list: (1) based on an intellectual property that’s only thought of fondly via nostalgia, (2) the plot is horrendously thin, and (3) it’s utterly self-aware of its own origins as a television show. Altogether, Baywatch should be a horror show. Instead, Baywatch is a hilarious romp that’s more frequently charming and clever than it is daffy. This is largely due to two factors: the grounding of the concept and the cast. Grounding is a major roadblock for near every television-to-film adaptation. The impulse to cover up outdated concepts with either zany antics or repetitive gross-out sequences make films cartoony instead of corporeal. Sure, some of Baywatch’s sequences bend the laws of logic, but none of the characters do anything so superhuman that it wasn’t done within the world of the original series. In fact, a nice touch by screenwriters Damian Shannon and Mark Swift (both of 2009’s Friday the 13th) was to solidify the reality of the film by making this story take place with new versions of the original characters set within the world of the original series. Though this little tidbit will likely flyover newer audiences, it serves as a delightful Easter egg for the original audience. It’s pure window dressing that just adds to the fun, but doesn’t diminish any of the narrative. Does the reality bending get a little confusing at times? Yes. Does it matter? Not even slightly. Frankly, the little nods to the original series – slow-motion running, the audible intro drums of the now-iconic theme “I’m Always Here”, and even the appearance of two original cast members – only enhance the sense of jubilation Baywatch brings out. It’s a summer movie, after all, so silliness reigns.
But the silliness only works if the cast has the chops to pull it all off. In this case, Gordon’s cast is not only made up of actors capable enough to pull off the serious-to-nonsensical tonal swings of the narrative, but they each have the look of Baywatch. Be honest, given the choice of prospective rescuers, most audience members would choose the charismatic, Samoan man-god Dwayne Johnson. At first glance, this alone would make him perfect as Mitch, BAYWATCH team lead and rescuer extraordinaire (over 500 saves). But it’s Johnson’s skill for comedic timing that enables him to successfully oscillate between straight-forward law enforcer and adolescent prankster. While this performance does seem odd at times given the more serious nature of the source material, portraying his version of Mitch Buchannon this way serves to highlight how the cinematic team dramatically shifts from casual play into work mode when the time calls for it. When it doesn’t, that’s when juvenile foolery begins. Rounding out the team is Ilfenesh Hadera (Chi-Raq) as Stephanie Holden, Mitch’s right-hand, and badass all by herself; Kelly Rohrbach (Broad City) as CJ Parker, the blonde bombshell who’s more than a pretty face; Alexandra Daddario (True Detective) as Summer Quinn, trainee #1/marine life enthusiast; Jon Bass (The Newsroom) as Ronnie Greenbaum, trainee #2/tech expert; and, finally, Zac Efron (Neighbors) as trainee #3/washed-up Olympic swimmer on probation. More than just their descriptors, each actor plays them straight, so that the comedy frequently comes from the situations and less the delivery. Doing this helps to flesh them out beyond the caricatures audiences expect them to be.
That isn’t to say that Baywatch doesn’t have its problems. As frequently as Mitch and his team are reminded by their boss, the local authorities, and even one of the trainees that BAYWATCH lacks real authority, there’re very little consequences for the extreme methods the BAYWATCH team frequently uses in their investigation. Considering the lengths Gordon goes to ground everything, it frequently feels odd to pick-and-choose when to abide by the rules and when to ignore them. Additionally, many of the self-referential moments back to the television show distract from the cinematic world that’s built up to stand as its own. Such as when Mitch talks to his mentor, played with good humor by David Hasselhof, or when someone other than the central cast moves in slow motion, funny though it may be, it stops Baywatch from being its own take on the property. Moored in the past instead of using this as an opportunity to build something new.
Baywatch swings for the fences and, in most cases, clears the field. The action is fun, the chemistry between the cast works, and the basic premise provides plenty of room to play in this proverbial sandbox. Baywatch may not be the first big action film of the summer, but it’s sure an entertaining one. So lotion up, grab your towel, and hit the sand. The lifeguard’s on duty.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.