I’m not mad. I’m just disappointed.
This is what happens when a duo I love gives me a movie I don’t. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Zac Efron teamed up for a summer reboot of the long-running TV series, “Baywatch.” But while the movie serves up all the gratifying beefcake and cheesecake (all the kinds of cake, really, and lots of it) of its source material, it loses the sweet camp of the original as it cusses and gross-outs its way to an R rating.
“Baywatch” became an international syndication staple, a David Hasselhoff vehicle, and launched the careers of many a beautiful person, most notably bombshell Pamela Anderson, during its 10-year run. The series was a natural candidate for an update in the action-comedy mold of 2012’s “21 Jump Street,” and the casting of Johnson and Efron made it promising. Johnson’s comedic chops were most recently on display in “Central Intelligence,” and Efron’s turn in “Neighbors” and its sequel revealed he’s more than happy to goof on his own pretty-boy rep.
Alas, they were not to be Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum or The Rock and Kevin Hart, at least not in this movie. Mitch Buchannon, The Rock reprising The Hoff’s role, is a superstar in the apparently very competitive world of Florida lifeguarding. The opening sequence features Buchannon rescuing a parasailer from certain death, then going for a morning jog during which he inspires and good-naturedly ribs townspeople of all stripes who stand in grinning awe of their local superhero. It’s how I imagine The Rock lives every day, and that’s why it works.
But not for long. Enter Matt Brody, Efron in the role made famous by Dave Charvet’s hair, who has been brought in by a strangely corporate lifeguarding authority of some kind. Brody is a former hotshot Olympic swimmer who disgraced himself when an alcohol-fueled incident in the pool earned him the nickname the Vomit Comet and lost his team a relay medal.
Although Baywatch has approximately a dozen people trying out for every open slot, Brody is assigned to the team by the lifeguard commissioner guy (Rob Huebel) to boost publicity or something. Brody’s brash entitlement offends Buchannon’s team ethos and offers a redemption arc for our fallen Lochte-type as Iceman and Maverick of the sea must try to work together.
Along the way, the rest of the team—Kelly Rohrbach as C.J. Parker, Alexandra Daddario as Summer Quinn, Ilfenesh Hadera as Stephanie Holden, and Jon Bass as Ronnie— jogs in slow motion alongside them with admirable charm given how little the script gives them. The gang stumbles across a drug ring and a few murders, which they set about busting and solving with lots of chutzpah but absolutely no legal authority. Priyanka Chopra (ABC’s “Quantico”) plays a Bond-villain/Bond-girl hybrid in her American blockbuster debut.
With a running time of 1:59, chopping 20 minutes might have improved the film, highlighting the movie’s couple of good gags, some expected but fun cameos, and fast-forwarding our leads’ relationship from mean, frat-boy barbs to one of father figure and dumb-but-sweet protege. Why does a summer comedy need to run two hours? The action scenes are decent, particularly a chase scene that ends in a baby’s nursery with a moment that exemplifies the combo of sweetness and toughness that works so well for Johnson as he pointedly protects a framed baby picture from the tough he’s beating to a pulp.
But more often than not, that sweetness and self-awareness is missing from the film, depriving the audience of what works best for the stars, the “Baywatch” franchise, and an update of this kind. The script, written by a duo best known for two “Freddy” flicks, doesn’t seem to know what to play for laughs, when to lean into its ridiculousness, or how to keep a rivalry endearing despite the likability of the leads. (“21 Jump Street’s” writers, on the other hand,” had proven a talent for endearing irony with “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.”)
The result is a movie that’s neither knowing enough nor dumb enough to be entertaining. There’s something there, but unlike the potential of schlubby new recruit Ronnie, even The Rock can’t coax it out.
“Baywatch” famously didn’t get its feet under it in its first run on NBC, canceled after one season before becoming the most-watched show in the world in syndication. Maybe this iteration of “Baywatch” could do the same if it survives its first outing, which has been slammed by critics and bombed at the box office. “Variety” reported a sequel is already in the works with the same cast and writers. Maybe call up the “Son of the Beach” scribes instead.