I tend to reject the notion that a film has to be tonally consistent throughout to work. The idea of picking a single tone and never straying from it sounds dull, if for no other reason than it leaves no room for surprises or spontaneity. When a film shifts from, for example, an intimate character study to an atmospheric mystery, it can be a welcome and intriguing way of throwing off an audience’s expectations. Any time a film catches me off guard, I’m on board. But in order for a movie to succeed in pulling off such a transition, it has to figure out what it is to begin with and then move into something else. With the big-screen adaptation of BAYWATCH, it never comfortably settles into either comedy or action enough to grab our attention, and that’s a major problem.
BAYWATCH isn’t a parody of the low-brow but highly successful ’90s television series, and I’m not even convinced laughs are a top priority since so few of the jokes actually land and most of them involve areas of the groin or the many degrading boy-band names team leader Mitch Buchannon (Dwayne Johnson) comes up with to call new recruit Matt Brody (Zac Efron). I happen to think Efron is a fairly reliable comedic talent, but if you’re counting on him to be the driving source of all laughter in your movie, you may be in trouble, especially in a work featuring such funny people as Hannibal Buress and Rob Huebel.
The obvious go-to reference points for BAYWATCH are the JUMP STREET films, which are solid comedies that also find ways to work in a bit of action. But with the presence of Johnson running of scantily-clad group of glorified lifeguards who also solve crimes and run sting operations (neither of which is in the formal job description), the film’s emphasis lands more squarely on action, most of which is fairly pedestrian and literally leads to a fireworks display to inject any kind of energy into its formulaic plot involving evil real estate mogul/drug kingpin Victoria Leeds (Bollywood superstar Priyanka Chopra, best known stateside for her leading role in “Quantico”). I’ll certainly give the filmmakers credit for not simply giving the villain role to yet another white guy with slicked-back hair, but it’s clear that they’re more interested in getting Chopra in an array of revealing dresses than letting her create an interesting foil for the Baywatch team.
It wouldn’t be BAYWATCH without a bevy of lovely ladies in red swimsuits that ride up their butt-cracks at an alarming angle. Ilfenesh Hadera (OLD BOY, “Billions” plays Stephanie, who seems to be the brains of the operation; model-turned-actress Kelly Rohrbach plays CJ (the part originated by Pamela Anderson in the series), who is surprisingly laid back about having everyone gawking at her; and Alexandra Daddario (who played Johnson’s daughter in SAN ANDREAS) is Summer, another trainee who not only does not casually accept the slightly sexist set up of the team but finds ways of chipping away at it when she isn’t running in slow motion. And let’s not forget the third new player Ronnie (Jon Bass), a work-in-progress type with a lot of heart and a major crush on CJ; he’s basically the team mascot and one of the few sources of laughs in the film.
Screenwriters Damian Shannon and Mark Swift seem to think that a running gag involving the fact that a huge percentage of the Baywatch team’s efforts should be handled by real police is enough to sustain a feature-length film, but shockingly it isn’t. And as for the action portions of BAYWATCH, director Seth Gordon (HORRIBLE BOSSES, IDENTITY THIEF) doesn’t really seem to have much of a handle on what makes fighting, chasing or exploding things in any way interesting, and that seems like it should be the easiest job in the world. And while Efron has not issues fully committing to the idea of making himself look like a jackass to get a few laughs, I was surprised more jokes weren’t made at Johnson’s expense (he does seem a bit humongous for a lifeguard); it almost feels like his ego is too fragile to handle being made fun of and that hurts the film, since everyone else takes verbal punches with a healthy regularity.
It’s almost disrespectful how lazy this movie feels at times. You have an action-comedy that isn’t especially funny or well staged for action, so what are you left with? I guess the short answer is: BAYWATCH, which seems like an easy target, especially in an R-rated environment. Instead, the filmmakers seem to think that a few dick jokes, lots of skin, and some obvious cameos are enough to earn your hard-earned cash. Feel free to set fire to your money rather than spend it on this.