Lieutenant Mitch Buchannon (Dwayne Johnson) takes his job as the head of Baywatch — a team of lifeguards who go above and beyond to protect and serve the beachgoers of Los Angeles — incredibly seriously. When the team is looking to recruit new lifeguards, Mitch takes umbrage when cocky disgraced two-time Olympic gold medal-winning swimmer Matt Brody (Zac Efron) shows up expecting the job to just be handed to him, but before Mitch can whip the new recruits into shape, the team discovers a criminal drug conspiracy taking place in their very own bay.
With Baywatch, the goal of this film is to do exactly what Phil Lord and Chris Miller did with the 2012 hit 21 Jump Street, to take the general idea of the original TV show (in this case, the original Baywatch, which ran from 1989 to 2001) and use it as a jumping off point for making a big, dumb, fun R-rated comedy. Did this plan succeed? Read on to find out…
First of all, let’s talk about the cast, because a movie like this might not have even come to fruition in the first place if not for a cast like this. There’s a pretty great team assembled here. Dwayne Johnson and Zac Efron make for a terrific pairing. The two have a ton of chemistry. Sure, it helps when Johnson has enough charisma to cover the bases of the entire cast, but Efron really brings it in the comedy department as well. I’ve never really been a fan of Efron’s, aside from some of his other comedic roles (like Neighbors), but I thought he was really funny here. On the other hand, I’ve been a massive fan of Dwayne “He’ll Always Be The Rock To Me” Johnson since childhood and I’ll watch damn near anything he’s in. Did we need a Baywatch movie? Probably not. But we got one and it’s starring The Rock, so I hope you have your wallets handy.
There’s also a lot of great female talent on board, which makes sense because aside from David Hasselhoff, the show was known more for its female stars. I’ve liked the lovely Alexandra Daddario, who plays one of the new recruits Summer, in just about everything I’ve seen her in and I thought she held up her end of the film’s main trio quite well. Kelly Rohrbach is also delightful as CJ Parker, the role Pamela Anderson played in the original TV series. Priyanka Chopra is fine as Leeds, the film’s stereotypical villain. She wasn’t the most impressive villain, but this role very well could have gone to a man and that could have been even blander, so I at least appreciated the direction they went with it here. The only main cast member that I felt got short-sided is Ilfenesh Hadera, who plays the other veteran lifeguard Stephanie Holden. I liked her in what she got to do in the film, but I felt like she probably could have been utilized better. I wouldn’t really say that they should have made her Johnson’s love interest, even though it seemed like that might be a direction they were headed, though that never went anywhere, but it would have at least been something more for her to do.
One of the funniest characters in the film is another new recruit Ronnie (played by Jon Bass), who has a hilariously unsubtle crush on CJ. Not all of his shenanigans landed for me, but when they did, they were a lot of fun. The rest of the cast features a few other terrific comedic performers, like the always hilarious Hannibal Buress, Rob Huebel and Oscar Nuñez. However, the real standout for me was Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, who plays Police Sargeant Ellerbee in the film. The actor, who I’ve personally never seen in anything before (he’s in The Get Down), is set to play Black Manta in the upcoming Aquaman movie, so it was nice to get a good look at him on-screen so I could get my bearings on him as a performer. The best part, though, is that he is really funny in the film. He’s one of my favorite characters.
There are a few nods here and there to the original television show, and for the most part, those worked. I was never a fan of the show, but I didn’t really feel like I needed to be to catch what few references I picked up on, like the slow-mo jokes or references to episode plots from the show, which are pretty much spelled out in the film for the uninitiated. It’s no surprise that a remake of this nature will feature cameos from the original cast, but the ones featured here were a bit uninspired. For one of the performers that appeared, it’s not even their best cameo in a film this year (hell, this month even). Another one of the cameos felt especially tacked on, almost like an afterthought. I get why they did them, but honestly, with the way the cameos were shoe-horned in, they didn’t really add to the film.
Overall, I thought Seth Gordon, known primarily for the first Horrible Bosses (which I loved) and Identity Thief (which I did not), did a fine job directing the film. There are a few action-y beats that easily could have been pretty dull in the hands of a lesser filmmaker. As I said before, the goal of this film was to capture the same magic that 21 Jump Street did, and in that regard, I think Baywatch succeeded. Is it a perfect film? God no, not by any means. It’s chock full of the usual tropes of the genre, but the source material here isn’t exactly Shakespeare, so the fact that Seth Gordon and company managed to create an enjoyable and most importantly, a funny film out of it is a win in and of itself. This trend of turning old TV shows into big screen comedies has been going on for quite a while now, and they almost always suck, but thankfully, this film falls into the minority for me alongside 21 Jump Street, its sequel and pretty much nothing else.
At the end of the day, Baywatch was a lot better than I had anticipated. I had little to no expectations going in and was pleased to find that I had a smile on my face for the majority of the film, which granted, at just shy of two hours was a little on the longish side, but not overly so. It’s no masterpiece, but there’s a lot of funny here, so for me, that more than makes up for any of this film’s shortcomings. Big, dumb fun always has its place. Also, did I mention The Rock is in it? I’d watch him beat my mother with a steel chair for two hours and happily fork over $15 bucks to see it.