Nobody cares about Baywatch. With the exception of David Hasselhoff, Eastern European villages where it still runs in syndication, or Yasmine Bleeth’s lawyer, no one particularly harbors a lingering appreciation for the series that nevertheless lasted 11 seasons, spanning the entirety of the 1990s, yet leaving next to no cultural impact besides its unaccountable global popularity. When Baywatch is remembered at all, it’s for the most superficial of signifiers: Playboy Playmates in red swimsuits running in slow motion across sandy beaches, either toward or away from Hasselhoff’s hairy torso. There are no lasting, iconic characters, no memorable episodes fondly recalled. Baywatch is the rare work of pop culture that was already an empty, kitschy joke as it aired.
In many ways, this should work to the advantage of Seth Gordon’s Baywatch, a film inspired by the TV series and, more specifically, by those vague vestiges of its memory. After all, with no one demanding that they “honor the lore,” the filmmakers have plenty of latitude to have some fun with it—like in Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s hyper-meta 21 Jump Street movies, which set the current standard for self-aware spoofing of TV reboots. Or more recently in CHIPS, which showed just how difficult that trope is to replicate, a lesson that Baywatch sadly reinforces. Gordon’s movie similarly aspires to satirize, yet still cash in on, its source material, by openly scoffing at the idea of a bunch of runway-ready lifeguards solving crimes. But its self-effacement is too halfhearted, its desire to deliver genuine thrills and jiggles too overwhelming, its central redemption story too oddly sincere. Ultimately, Baywatch can never make up its mind whether it wants to mock glitzy softcore action-fests or just be one.
As hotshot new lifeguard recruit Matt Brody, Zac Efron expresses much of that self-awareness, constantly challenging Dwayne Johnson’s Lt. Mitch Buchannon over why it’s the job of pretty people in wetsuits to play detective. Brody, a washed-up bad-boy Olympian, has joined Buchannon’s team along with two fellow trainees—instantaneous love interest Summer (Alexandra Daddario) and token doofus Ronnie (newcomer Jon Bass, doing a passable Josh Gad)—and together with the sweet C.J. (Sports Illustrated model Kelly Rohrbach) and the mostly forgotten Stephanie (Ilfenesh Hadera), they dive into the myriad nefarious plots conveniently taking place around their beach. Most of these involve a local glamour-puss real estate developer (Priyanka Chopra), whose convoluted drug-smuggling, city-official-blackmailing, and land-grabbing aspirations would make for a fairly low-key episode of the original Baywatch. “It all sounds like a really entertaining but far-fetched TV show,” Brody even declares at one point, a line that’s less satire than borderline self-loathing.
If only Baywatch had the guts to indulge in that skepticism a little more. Perhaps because it’s pointless to mock something so inherently hollow, Baywatch eventually gets so caught up in its rote action plot—and in delivering enough glistening curves, wicked jet ski chases, and montages of sexy people walking sexily—that it stops trying to make fun of any of it. The film instead becomes a mélange of boob and boner jokes, with the kind of lightly snarking, movie-only banter where everyone is constantly busting each other’s balls. When all else fails, Bass takes his shirt off and flops around or does a sassy hip-hop dance routine. There is also a scene where Efron dresses up like a woman. Baywatch may occasionally feint toward satire, but it mostly just wants to trade some funny pics and look at some boobs, bro. It’s like a movie version of The Chive.
By leaning on the considerable charms and uncorked-genie enthusiasm of Dwayne Johnson, it very nearly succeeds in its disappointingly modest ambitions. Johnson seems to be willing Baywatch into being the action-comedy franchise he’s long deserved with every bulging vein in his body, and he’s so enthusiastic that you root for him to succeed, in spite of every misgiving. (God help us if he decides to go through with that presidential run.) Unfortunately, The Rock and Efron don’t exactly make for a classic buddy-cop team. The film wrings some modest early laughs out of Efron’s Ryan Lochte-like douchiness, but it can never settle on just how big of an idiot he’s supposed to be. Weirdly, it also quickly reveals a backstory that makes his constant humiliations seem almost cruel. Meanwhile, he and Johnson have a disjointed repartee that’s half locker-room rivalry, half stepfather and rebellious stepson, and—outside of a few boy-band-related insults lobbed Efron’s way—it lacks the sparring necessary for these sorts of mismatched partnerships. (Though, to be fair, they do have slightly different-looking muscles.) It’s certainly no match for the tonal clash of the film itself.
In keeping with the spirit of the original Baywatch, the female supporting cast is just there to be ogled, with few opportunities granted to show more flashes of wit than skin. Daddario has a feisty presence that’s mostly reduced to standing around, waiting for Efron to finish talking. The pleasant, goofily charming Rohrbach is unfortunately saddled with having to play a fantasy cool girl who’s flattered by Bass’ awkward pursuits for reasons that are not even close to articulated. And both Hadera and Chopra—who spends nearly every one of her lines bluntly reiterating that she’s the villain—disappear for huge stretches of time, all in order to make room for more of Johnson and Efron’s endless bickering over who’s a bigger boy.
Incredibly, Baywatch even manages to sideline comic ringers like Hannibal Buress, Rob Huebel, and Oscar Nunez, giving them dialogue that could have been read by anybody and characters too in service of pushing the generic exposition along to add anything to it. As the exasperated beach cop who repeatedly reminds Johnson and Efron of their lack of any real jurisdiction, The Get Down’s Yahya Abdul-Mateen II makes the biggest impression, simply by dint of having a distinct personality. His scenes are enough to make you wish he’d just step in to replace either Johnson or Efron; which one honestly wouldn’t make much of a difference.
With so much wasted potential, it’s hardly surprising that Baywatch went through six different screenwriters, a franchise dream team that is, collectively, responsible for Night At The Museum, Freddy Vs. Jason, and The Smurfs. Here, they’ve designed another limp, shallow content-delivery machine that’s concerned only with hitting the notes legally required to use the Baywatch name. That philosophy continues right down to the obligatory “surprise” cameos from David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson, who, much like the constant slow motion, are there simply to congratulate the audience for getting the reference. After all, nobody—not even the filmmakers—cares about Baywatch all that much. Yet the joke’s on them: In spoofing something so forgettable, they’ve made something even less memorable.