How do you update Baywatch for 2017?
The original was a cheesy TV drama mostly remembered for its slow-mo shots of busty women running down the beach, if it’s remembered at all — if you missed this property the first time around, you probably never bothered seeking it out in reruns.
Based on the Baywatch movie, it’s clear what the filmmakers thought would be the way to go. The new film gives Baywatch the 21 Jump Street treatment, which is to say that it refashions the old show as an R-rated comedy peppered with ridiculous action and knowing winks.
But Baywatch serves as evidence that that formula isn’t as foolproof as it thinks. An unfunny script doesn’t get funnier just because it gets to use the F-word. Making a plotline more complicated doesn’t make it more interesting or more meaningful. Easter eggs are only fun if they’re clever. And just because a movie calls itself out for leering at women, doesn’t mean it’s not leering at women.
Baywatch centers around two male hardbodies. Dwayne Johnson is Mitch Buchannon, a lifeguard who takes his job way too seriously. (Mind you, the old Mitch Buchannon, played by David Hasselhoff in a cameo, still exists — there are just two guys now with the exact same name. This confusing situation is Baywatch in a nutshell.) Which means he’s none too thrilled when he’s forced to take on a selfish hotshot Olympian, Brody (Zac Efron), who’s only joining the team to fulfill a community service requirement.
And Mitch is especially unhappy about the whole situation given that he’s in the middle of a big case. Illegal drugs have started surfacing on his beach, and he’s determined to find out who’s bringing them in. He might not know, but we do: It’s Victoria Leeds (Priyanka Chopra), a corrupt local businesswoman who’s got tons of money and power but still wants more. When one of her hapless victims accuses her of being greedy, she shrugs, “If I were a man, you’d call me driven.”
Chopra is maybe the only thing Baywatch really has going for it
Chopra is maybe the only thing Baywatch really has going for it. Leeds is basically a Bond villain in the body of a Bond girl, and Chopra tears into the role with so much gusto that she almost elevates the entire movie through sheer force of will. At least when she’s onscreen, that is — like basically anyone who’s not Mitch or Brody, she gets shortchanged in terms of screentime.
Leeds is the most successful execution of Baywatch‘s half-hearted commitment to modern-day feminism. Elsewhere, Alexandra Daddario plays a lifeguard trainee that you know is sassy because she scoffs “and no fucks were given” when Brody tries to introduce himself, but that you also know will cave to his douchey charms eventually because this isn’t the kind of movie that lets an attractive woman get away with not falling for the male lead.
But no one is treated worse than Kelly Rohrbach as the new CJ Parker. (Unlike the original Mitch Buchannon, the original CJ Parker does not appear to exist in this universe. Again, it’s all very confusing and dumb.) Rohrbach is a likable presence, but can only do so much with a character who may as well be a cardboard cutout of Pamela Anderson. CJ’s entire purpose is to give Ronnie, the nerdy lifeguard played by Jon Bass, something to aspire to. You can probably guess whether or not he gets the girl.
Baywatch offers plenty of footage of Zac Efron and Dwayne Johnson with their shirts off and their muscles on, but the ogling isn’t equal-opportunity. The men aren’t shot with loving slow pans the way the women are. Nor do the women leer at them the way they leer at the women. They’re granted far more agency in their romantic subplots, and in the plot in general. Baywatch keeps making knowing jokes about its objectification of its characters, as if that’ll get them off the hook, but all it does is turn Baywatch into an exercise in hipster sexism.
But that’s not Baywatch‘s only, or even its biggest, problem. Everything about this movie feels like it was slapped together at the last minute. Setups are established for punchlines that never materialize. Certain plot points are quietly abandoned, while other plot points seem to come out of nowhere.
Maybe all of this could be forgiven if Baywatch were at least funny, but its jokes are about as sophisticated as the ones you’ll find in a middle school gym when the teacher’s not looking. This is a movie that thinks Zac Efron fondling a corpse’s taint is so outrageously hilarious that it needs to keep the gag going for a good 10 minutes.
And that’s too bad, because Baywatch is coming at the right time to be a huge hit. Johnson’s never been bigger, the beach theme suits the sunny weather outside, and with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 in our rearview mirror and Wonder Woman still up ahead, there’s room at the cineplex for a really solid crowdpleaser.
This isn’t it. If you’re in the mood for breezy summer fun, you’ll be better served by skipping the multiplex and just heading to an actual beach.