It seems like only last week that I sat down to watch and review ‘CHiPs’, a disappointing movie based on the old TV show of the same name, yet here I am now reviewing ‘Baywatch’, another remake of an old TV show. There’s a powerful sense of déjà vu, not least because neither idea immediately strikes one as a home run. Admittedly, ‘Baywatch’ is a better prospect on paper, with the big names of its leading duo and a premise that is inherently more cinematic. What would you rather watch; two men dressed in beige riding around on motorbikes and stopping vehicular misdemeanours, or an aesthetically-gifted team of lifeguards performing slow-mo water rescues and investigating sun-kissed beach crimes? Despite this hint of promise, ‘Baywatch’ represents a new low for TV reboot cash-ins, sinking to the seafloor with a colossally dumb and only fitfully amusing story, further hampered by the unsubtle hand of helmer Seth Gordon.
Dwayne Johnson stars as Lt. Mitch Buchanan, a role made famous by David Hasselhoff. Buchanan and his team patrol the beaches of Emerald Bay, Florida, an idyllic stretch of sun, sand and swanky resorts with an alarming rate of problems for the team to tackle, from ‘sand grifters’ to windsurfing accidents, drug importers to manta ray infestations. Buchanan’s introduction, in which he singlehandedly saves the life of a wayward kiteboarder before going for an extended jog along his beaches is about as subtle as Johnson’s rippling muscles – every person he passes mutters about his prowess as a lifesaver, a relative of theirs he’s saved, or how he’s a direct descendent of Poseidon (though that last one might be something my mind cooked up while being bombarded by images of pinwheeling CGI dolphins and Christopher Lennertz’s pounding, bass-heavy score).
Buchanan’s offsiders include Stephanie (Ilfenesh Hadera, cool as a cucumber) and C.J. (Kelly Rohrbach, sweet but unfunny), but he’s looking to expand his posse. For on this day, the annual lifeguard tryouts are being held where, with presumably little regard for his department’s budget, Buchanan is looking to take on three recruits. The “winners” (the rules of the trials are a little lax to say the least) are disgraced former Olympian Matt Brody (Zac Efron), surfer chick Summer (Alexandra Daddario) and chubby tech guy Ronnie (Jon Bass, struggling to be more than a tokenistic overweight foil). With his extended team in place, Buchanan is ready to tackle a new threat emerging in Emerald Bay: Victoria Leeds (Priyanka Chopra), a wealthy club owner and property mogul who has designs to privatise their beloved Bay.
The screenplay sets up a number of relationships and emotional beats, but few of them land. The mentor/big brother set-up between Buchanan and Brody, in which Buchanan teaches Brody to be a valuable team player, feels forced and obviously transparent. Efron and Johnson, both regularly charming actors themselves, lack the requisite chemistry to make it work; it’s as though so many improvised takes of each scene were filmed that having to extract a story meant discarding any moments of real bonding. The romances, including one between Brody and the initially reluctant Summer and another between a love-struck Ronnie and the out-of-his-league C.J., are dull and lifeless. There’s even a scene where Ronnie discovers that a friend of his has died in their battle for the beach, the perfect opportunity for a tear or two. The script doesn’t even acknowledge that Ronnie should be sad, playing it for an unfunny joke about his inability to look away from viscera instead.
Despite the movie’s failure to sell its interpersonal moments, it hits most of its ‘wow’ moments. At one point, while tech-guy-who-desperately-doesn’t-want-to-be-known-as-the-tech-guy Ronnie is hacking into Leeds’ security system, he turns to Efron’s dim-witted Matt and says, ‘Thank God you’re pretty’. Bar the extremely cheap looking special effects (a fiery boat rescue stands out as a paragon of ugly, physics-defying digital trickery), ‘Baywatch’ looks every bit the progeny of its forebear, famous for introducing the world to Pamela Anderson in slow-motion. It verges on exploitative, but the camera of DP Eric Steelberg leers at the glistening abs of Johnson and Efron, the sapphire blue eyes of Daddario and the painfully tight bathing suits that female members of Buchanan’s team are stuffed into.
All else aside, its gravest crime is that it’s not funny. It would be a stretch to say that one-third of the jokes land. Writers Mark Swift and Damian Shannon, responsible for a few dismal horror sequels in the past, don’t have the comedic chops necessary to overcome the wealth of plotholes, but they’re also trying to make up for the lack of comedic talent in the cast. Efron and Johnson have proven themselves before, but they seem drained and trying here (though Rob Huebel makes the most of his role as Mitch’s boss). A couple of cameos from original cast members are not only unamusing, they’re downright distracting and confusing (if Johnson is now playing Mitch Buchanan, then why is Hasselhoff now showing up as a character also called Mitch Buchanan?).
Call me cynical, but the studios must have seen the returns from the excellent ’21 Jump Street’ reboot and its sequel and decided that it was time they too would turn a profit from mining old IP. It’s why we got ‘CHiPs’ and it’s why we have ‘Baywatch’ now. ‘Jump Street’ has loomed large over all TV reboots since, with its winning formula of heart and humour, action and emotion, plus a playful but oddly reverent approach to the source material. If the dreary ‘Baywatch’ can truly be directly traced back to ‘Jump Street’, then those undercover officers should hand in their badges in shame.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Review by the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting