Dwayne Johnson and Zac Efron go chest to chest in a limp big-screen update of the 90s TV show that doesn’t have the wit or stamina to stay afloat. Just as nobody ever bought a Pirelli calendar simply to find out the date, the world didn’t tune into Baywatch for over a decade purely for the lifeguarding instruction.
Let’s face it: Baywatch was all about the fantasy American lifestyle of sun, sea and semi-naked flesh jiggling along beaches in slow-mo. Put that aside, as well as those little red floaty things they carried around with them, can anyone truly remember anything else about Baywatch?
That could have been a golden opportunity. Previous movies based on retro TV shows have taught us, the only way to repackage such brand-name yet dated material is with heavy measures of irony and self-satire. And even then they invariably fail: CHiPs, The Dukes of Hazzard, The A-Team, everything except 21/22 Jump Street, basically. This lacklustre comedy heads off in that direction but it doesn’t have the wit or the stamina to stay afloat. By about halfway into the film, the jokes dry up and the story sinks like an overweight tourist who took a dip too soon after the all-you-can-eat surf’n’turf buffet.
Looking at the cast, you can see how it might have worked. Dwayne Johnson makes a nice David Hasselhoff stand-in, with his winning blend of comic charm, calm authority and amazingly pumped bod. He’s the king of the beach (in Florida, rather than California this time), respected by locals and fellow lifeguards and prepared for all forms of aquatic jeopardy. But comes along a challenger: bad-boy former Olympic swimmer Zac Efron, whose muscles are even dreamier than Johnson’s, but who musts learn a thing or two about being a team player.
Overshadowed by this alpha-male chest-off, the women are given thankless, almost interchangeable roles as love interests and swimsuit models. Sports Illustrated regular Kelly Rohrbach portrays the role of Pamela Anderson, though “role” is a generous description. The swimwear couture hasn’t moved on since the 90s, either: cut so high at the hip you wonder if there was a lycra shortage; unzipped at the front to show maximum cleavage. Even Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra, the underused villain of the film, looks like she was contractually forced to show as much skin as permissible.
The only exception to the beach-body fascism is a podgy, techie nerd (played by Jon Bass), who somehow makes it on to this “elite” team (no prizes for guessing if his dreams of wooing Rohrbach, perhaps by displaying levels of heroism nobody hitherto suspected, come true). The comedy bar is set low early on when he gets his erection trapped in a sunbed, prompting a prolonged, desperately unfunny scene of penis-related public humiliation ripped off from There’s Something About Mary.
It doesn’t get much better from there on in. There are crude, pointless set-pieces involving the inspection of a corpse’s scrotum, Efron dressing in drag, and the ogling of women’s breasts. Not even the obligatory cameos by the original cast make an impression: Hasselhoff actually did a funnier cameo in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2; and Anderson looks like she turned up on the last day of the shoot and no one knew what to do with her.
A few jokes land – Johnson’s constant ribbing of Efron for his boyband looks, for example – but this Baywatch makes the fatal mistake of assuming it’s got a worthwhile story to tell, when in fact it’s an off-the-shelf Scooby-Doo caper about Chopra flooding the beach with drugs so she can snap up the real estate … and it would have worked if it wasn’t for those meddling lifeguards! As the second half limped to its climatic laugh-free action, I felt like I was drowning in an ocean of boredom with not even a lame, penis-related joke to cling to, not to mention a red floaty thing.