Despite the charm of Dwayne Johnson and Zac Efron, Baywatch is an overlong buddy cop (or, lifeguard) comedy with more notable action than humor.
Baywatch introduces an elite team of Emerald Bay lifeguards led by Mitch Buchannon (Dwayne Johnson), the team’s lieutenant who is beloved by his inferiors and the entire community that he serves. Along with his second in command, Stephanie (Ilfenesh Hadera), and fellow Baywatch veteran C.J. (Kelly Rohrbach), Mitch brings in three trainees to the lifeguard program: the tough, sassy surfer Summer (Alexandra Daddario); the dedicated but awkward Ronnie (Jon Bass); and the disgraced two-time Olympic gold medal winner Matt Brody (Zac Efron). Although Mitch chafes at the idea of allowing Brody on the team, Baywatch’s Captain Thorp (Rob Huebel) insists.
With his new team, Mitch begins to investigate the rise in drug activity on his beach after noticing more and more bags of flakka have washed up on the shore. His investigation leads to the new owner of the expensive beachfront resort The Huntley Club, Victoria Leeds (Priyanka Chopra). As Mitch and the other Baywatch team members dig deeper into Victoria’s dealings and connect the dots between the drugs and a number of deaths that have occurred on their beach, they discover a much more complicated operation. Since Mitch and his team aren’t taken seriously by the local police, especially beat cop Ellerbee (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), it’s up to Baywatch to save the day.
Directed by Seth Gordon (Identity Thief, Horrible Bosses) from a screenplay by writing duo Damian Shannon and Mark Swift (2009’s Friday the 13th, Freddy vs. Jason), Baywatch may be striving for the same mix of updated classic franchise, meta humor, and heart achieved by the likes of Chris Miller and Phil Lord’s 21 Jump Street. If that’s the case, Baywatch doesn’t hit the mark – though it should be noted 21 Jump Street set an incredibly high bar for beloved franchises revitalized for modern audiences. Aside from the obvious comparisons between the two buddy cop (or, in the case of Baywatch, lifeguard) comedies based on popular TV series from the ’80s/’90s, Baywatch tries to carve out its own niche in the action/comedy genre. However, despite the charm of Dwayne Johnson and Zac Efron, Baywatch is an overlong comedy with more notable action than humor.
Baywatch mainly blends in with other films within the category of summer raunch comedies, without much in the way of its humor to set it apart. There are the requisite penis and boob jokes, a great deal of gross-out humor, and a few references to the Baywatch TV series that are too overt to be tongue-in-cheek and, as a result, wind up falling flat. Certainly, there are plenty of moments throughout Baywatch that will prompt a laugh, but they’re standard jokes and formulaic humor that have been tested and proven by countless films before. Even the gags that aren’t quite like anything else – an awkward character pulling out Magic Mike-style dance moves – are built on tired stereotypes that weigh the jokes down, rather than the humor tearing down those comedy tropes.
The brightest spots in Baywatch are its two leading men; Johnson and Efron have both built their careers in vastly different ways, but found success as charming and likable leads who delight fans by embracing raunch comedy, especially since it’s contrary to what they’re most well known for. Johnson is easily believable as the charming and beloved Mitch, while Efron brings necessary charisma to the selfish and arrogant Brody. The heart of Baywatch rests on the shoulders of Johnson and Efron’s characters as they evolve from an antagonistic mentor-mentee relationship to actual partners. However, while the dynamic between Johnson and Efron is likable enough, the writing of their characters isn’t very strong – Brody has a rather tragic backstory that is mostly glossed over, while Mitch’s entire character is rooted in his job. Additionally, Baywatch attempts to impart a message about the importance of family and working together as a team, though it mostly gets lost in the humor and action of Mitch and Brody’s adventure.
As for the supporting characters, Ronnie is positioned as the comedic relief, but winds up being a much more integral part of the plot than any of the female lifeguards. Baywatch tries to be progressive in its portrayal of women in comedy by making the villain a woman and giving the female lifeguards jokes of their own. However, Chopra’s villain is a basic outline of a black widow without offering any depth whatsoever to her character, while C.J., Summer, and Stephanie are relegated to love interest roles. Certainly, Summer has some sass – as clearly evidenced by the first time she rejects Brody – and C.J. must have some depth if she’s interested in Ronnie, but these superficial twists on classic sexist tropes don’t develop the characters or give them any real agency. At the end of the day, C.J., Summer, and Stephanie look on and support their men as Mitch, Brody, and even Ronnie are the ones who really defeat the villain.
For all its surface-level progressiveness and formulaic humor, Baywatch does succeed in delivering some entertaining and exciting action sequences. With dynamic shots and a great deal of underwater scenes – as moviegoers would expect of a film starring a group of lifeguards – Baywatch offers visually compelling action set pieces that range from Brody’s dive off a motorcycle on the pier into the ocean to a fight sequence on a fireworks barge. Johnson and Efron work to bring physicality to their roles, both for the action sequences and the scenes that verge more on humorous. Still, despite Baywatch falling firmly in the action/comedy genre-mixing category, the large scale set pieces are almost too serious, conflicting with the lighter overall tone of the film and giving the movie an uneven feel.
All in all, Baywatch capitalizes on its R-rating, affable stars, and the goodwill of its TV franchise ties to breathe life into an otherwise standard buddy cop action/adventure. Though the film tries to join the ranks of action comedies with heart – or, perhaps, follow in the footsteps of 21 Jump Street in modernizing a classic property to great success – Baywatch ultimately doesn’t offer much more than a superficial bro adventure. Certainly, the film will no doubt entertain audiences that head to theaters excited for Johnson or Efron’s latest offering, and it does deliver on the promise of a summer comedy starring the two beloved actors. Still, neither Johnson and Efron’s charm nor the property’s TV legacy can save Baywatch from becoming a largely unremarkable action comedy.
Baywatch is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 116 minutes long and is rated R for language throughout, crude sexual content, and graphic nudity.
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