Baywatch kinda baffled me. This R-rated comedy adaptation of the cheesy but sincere beach-set action series — which somehow became a worldwide phenomenon in the 1990s — is a movie that should be as enjoyably ridiculous as its source material. In some instances, it is. Director Seth Gordon (Horrible Bosses) and a brigade of screenwriters (including The State alumni and confessed hacks-for-hire Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant) appear to understand that this shouldn’t be a challenging ride. Like the show, it’s about an insanely attractive lifeguard crew whose members really throw themselves into their work. But the product teeters between absurdity and earnestness.
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Leading the charge is Mitch Buchannon (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, assuming the David Hasselhoff role), a superhero in swim trunks who is always on alert, ensuring that his beach is safe for all who frolic on it. He doesn’t have time for showboating pretty-boys — enter Zac Efron’s washed-up (figuratively and often literally) Olympic gold medalist Matt Brody, who shows up as a new lifeguard recruit. Johnson and Efron, two men who have discovered they can use their chiseled looks as comic fodder, have a nice, ball-busting chemistry. Buchannon hits him with nicknames such as “Bieber” and “High School Musical,” while the unfazed Brody mocks the boss’ alpha-male intensity.
There are also, of course, ravishing beauties on this team, including model Kelly Rohrbach, stepping into Pamela Anderson’s role as slo-mo-running blonde C.J., and, as the resident brunette, True Detective’s Alexandra Daddario (who was hilariously miscast as Johnson’s daughter in San Andreas last summer). There’s even a pudgy guy (Jon Bass), mostly here to endure humiliating moments — usually involving his genitals — in front of his crush, C.J.
Buchannon and his gang see themselves not just as beach protectors but also as above-the-law avengers. The movie’s funniest moments come when a cop (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) constantly reminds them that they don’t have the legal authority to do the crazy shit they do — breaking into a morgue and tampering with (or, in this case, molesting) corpses, for example, or chasing down perps. That doesn’t stop the crew from trying to take down a wealthy woman (Quantico’s Priyanka Chopra, trying to be dastardly) who is behind some evil plot involving drugs and real estate.
Gordon sets aside straight-faced moments where Johnson’s tough but well-meaning superior attempts to rein in Efron’s cocky subordinate, who ultimately learns to keep his self-destructive ass in check and be a part of the team. (Think An Officer and a Gentleman, but with bikinis and boardshorts.) These odd moments of seriousness make Baywatch a weirdly uneven experience. As balls-to-the-wall as it gets with both its raunchy material and its explosion-heavy action sequences, it also at times is as awkwardly sincere as the show once was. And because it clocks in at unnecessary two hours, you get a lot of tonal seesawing. (Oh, if you’re wondering: Yes, Hasselhoff and Anderson are shoehorned in with thankless cameos.)
I will say this, though: Johnson has this movie-star thing down. Even though he’s playing a character whose pathological stubbornness edges toward the sociopathic, he oozes charisma and self-effacing suavity whenever the camera is aimed at him. Johnson practically carries this movie on his shoulders — the movie’s title literally hovers over him in the opening sequence. No matter how ill-conceived and out-of-whack this flick gets, he wears Baywatch well.