When the BAYWATCH TV series first hit airwaves back in 1989, it was a sensation. Guilty pleasure (emphasis on the pleasure) to some. Badassery on the beach to others. Sand-sprinting for a little over a decade in syndication (11 seasons!), the series made a star out of whoever was lucky enough to don a red swimsuit and look bouncy running in slo-mo. In a time when those halcyon sun-drenched fantasies have faded into sobering reality, a time after David Hasselhoff’s career was sabotaged by a midnight cheeseburger and Pamela Anderson was diagnosed with Hep C, someone decided it was a good idea to give the property a cinematic mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. The form it took is director Seth Gordon’s action-raunchcom that is good at neither action nor raunchy comedy, BAYWATCH.
Your first clue to how torturous this almost two hours of laughter-free cinema will be is that the soundtrack changes cues four times before we’re out of the opening credits. Much like Phil Miller and Chris Lord made rebooting hokey TV series look easy, lifeguard Mitch Buchannon (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) makes guarding Emerald Bay look even easier. He, along with Stephanie Holden (Ilfenesh Hadera) and CJ Parker (Kelly Rohrbach), have been keeping the water and shore safe for years. But now it’s time to add three new recruits to the squad: headstrong Summer Quinn (Alexandra Daddario), dedicated tech-nerd Ronnie Greenbaum (Jon Bass), and Olympic “hero-turned-zero” Matt Brody (Zac Efron). As the team learns how to work together, a criminal scheme involving a drug called “flaca” and fancy club owner Victoria Leeds (Priyanka Chopra) is also taking form – one that threatens the Bay’s citizens.
First of all, there’s no way the plot (graciously bequeathed to us by screenwriters Damian Shannon and Mark Swift, who work from a story by Jay Scherick, David Ronn, Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant) justifies the bloated run time. They attempt self-aware, self-reflexive jokes about how far-fetched the TV show’s plots were, but it backfires as it reminds you at least they got the job done in a shorter time and with bigger fanfare. The film wastes no time in getting to its first of many elongated dick jokes. The stuck-junk joke goes on endlessly, and is just flat-out not funny. (When will people give up trying to top THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY with this kind of gag?) There’s another excruciating bit later with genitals in the morgue. Dialogue and character interactions are lazy and nonsensical. When Matt strikes out laying on the charm in his intro to Summer, her ham-handed, aggressive responses of “not a single f*ck was given” and “why don’t you put a baby in me,” sound like leftover punchlines from a first draft. Also egregious is Mitch’s “bath time shithead” line (a relic from the Schwarzenegger era) after a criminal with a Diaper Genie on his head is pushed into a pool. Plus, action sequences are terribly composed, looking like a SyFy movie or overly relying on shaky cam.
Characters, if you can even call them that, have little to no depth or dimension. They are their jobs and their descriptions. At least Ronnie and CJ get to complete an arc together. I can’t say as much for the rest. Mitch’s great hurdle is seeking legitimacy from the police department, yet that drive or struggle never feels tangible. Matt’s conflict, which is learning to no longer be a screw-up, is hackneyed at best. Of course there’s a shot of him sulking, tossing one of his medals in the ocean just in case you didn’t get it up until that point. Matt and Mitch’s bickering isn’t funny. It’s more akin to hearing long-time marrieds argue. Pacing also impacts them as supporting players disappear for a large chunk of the film – particularly when Matt, Summer and Mitch are conducting their investigation.
All that said, the protagonists’ thinly drawn characters and relationships aren’t the biggest problems – it’s the antagonist. The filmmakers try to infuse villainous Victoria with feminism, but my God do they royally blunder it. Through exposition, Victoria explains she was passed over by her father to run his business despite being the better, savvier business person. She later complains about sexism to a trapped Matt. She blames misogyny and misandry for turning her into the scheming, maniacal villain she’s become. Yup. Feminism is the villain here. Thanks, boys!
It’s as if we’re seeing the product of no one behind the scenes caring about what’s going in front of the camera. Continuity is the microcosm into these filmmakers’ mindsets. Details don’t matter here: There’s a sequence at Victoria’s private club that has them knocking back fine scotch in tumblers, until the barware magically changes to shot glasses (a crime itself regardless of the continuity error). It’s ludicrously thin that a Tag-Heuer watch is the key to the gang figuring out the criminals’ connections. Not only that, thin cameos from Hasselhoff and Anderson – bits that perhaps seemed funnier on paper, but probably not even then – are bungled and wasted.
If the horrendous green screen work doesn’t pull you out of it, there’s bound to be other things that do. Listen, if all you wanted to see was The Rock swear and be raunchy, then, mazel! You’ll love it. But for everyone else, BAYWATCH will leave you unsatisfied.
BAYWATCH opens on May 25.