Why aren’t more summer blockbusters set at the beach? Not that Baywatch justifies the beach genre, exactly. I just like beaches. I guess there’s always Dunkirk, the upcoming World War II movie, in which a legion of fresh-faced soldiers die gruesomely on French shores thanks to an innately cruel war. That movie is set on a beach, too. It’s out in July. I bet it’ll be less depressing. In the meantime, we’re stuck with Baywatch, which is at minimum mildly diverting, or at least eager to appear to be — for our sake. There are boobs, there are jokes, there are boob jokes: the end. No cynical cash-grabs here! No studio bottom lines — only tan lines. Right?
The movie is a reboot of the megapopular TV series, which ran from 1989 to 2001 and, as the story goes, revised our ratings expectations for shitty American TV. The movie, which supplements the show’s beach-babe camp with a stifling layer of self-awareness, won’t revise anything, and record-breaking feels unlikely. But we’re already being promised a sequel, which of course we’ve already asked for, even as most of us have yet to see the first one. This is Baywatch for the superhero era — not so much for the way it reflects the style or interests of those films but because it seems painfully aware of what it’s up against: movies that magically spawn other movies.
Baywatch stars Dwayne Johnson as Mitch Buchannon — so-named for his forefather on the show, memorably played by David Hasselhoff. He’s the king of the beach: The semi-humorous opening minutes show him saving lives and taking names. "Are you Batman?" a guy asks. "Sure, pal," Mitch says. "Just bigger — and browner." There’s another guy making a life-size sculpture of Mitch in the sand; the real Mitch tells him to make the pecs and dick bigger. A passerby says he heard that Mitch invented Google. All bullshit, but you get the idea. Lifeguards, in the Baywatch universe, aren’t merely there to get tans and make their asses jiggle in slow-motion, nor even just to save people. They’re a symbol — an optimistic amalgam of all that an everyday hero can do and be.
I mean that pretty literally. On the show, and in the movie, the Baywatch team is, like, the police. They’re also firefighters, the DEA, and the National Guard, and they would probably be the NSA if not for the substantial risk that they’d get sand in the computer keys. Mitch and the other Baywatch lifeguards in the movie — CJ (Kelly Rohrbach), Stephanie (Ilfenesh Hadera), and trainees Ronnie (Jon Bass) and Summer (Alexandra Daddario) — are never more threatened than when someone points out that they are not, in fact, equipped to solve murders or take down real estate conspiracies. A cop explains it best: "You’ve got one job: make sure swim-happy white people don’t drown."
That doesn’t stop them from digging. The crime at the heart of the movie is a set of murders propagated by Victoria Leeds (Priyanka Chopra), a real estate mogul opening a new property on the beach who is also, as it happens, a murdering blackmailer at the center of a drug trafficking ring. "I’m not a Bond villain," Leeds says. "Yet." That’d be enough for one crime-stopping team of lifeguards to handle, but there’s the added bummer of a new teammate whose ego keeps throwing a wrench in things.
The teammate in question is Matt Brody (Zac Efron), a two-time gold medalist swimmer on a losing streak. He blew his last big event: Literally, during a team relay, he blew chunks in the water. He’d been out drinking. The bad PR has landed him at Baywatch for a community service gig, but it’s rough waters at first because he’s irresponsible and remarkably silly: If he puts the "I" in team, it’s not only because he’s selfish, it’s also because you sense he really might not know how to spell the word. That’s the running joke, anyway: big ego, small brain. He’s Ryan Lochte. That’s sort of funny! And Efron, to his credit, revels in the opportunity to flex his abs, flash those CoverGirl lashes, and act stupidly.
Efron is an incredibly warm, empathetic performer. I wish he had more empathy for me, a longtime fan, and everyone else who loves him. I wish this empathy encouraged him to choose better projects. Baywatch, while occasionally cute, is an altogether dull ride. Too many of the jokes here don’t land, and not because they couldn’t have. The director, Seth Gordon (Horrible Bosses, Identity Thief), has a poor sense of comic timing — and a poor sense of timing, generally. The movie is almost two hours long. Just how much slow-mo is really necessary? Just how many "plot twists" (I’m being generous) do we need? What was memorable about the show was its unpretentious sense of optimism for its era. The movie reproduces some of the fun of the show — the slow-motion, of course, and the leering-but-not-unkind pans up and down women’s bodies. You see the lifeguards jump to action swiftly and skillfully, and Efron and Johnson, in particular, have a nice comic chemistry, even if it gets strained beyond belief.
It is marginally entertaining. But ["Who watches the watchmen" voice]: Who diverts us from all these diversions? At some point, in a movie like this, even having fun becomes a chore. Baywatch isn’t the worst movie, or even the worst movie out this weekend. But when the competition is Pirates of the Caribbean 13, is that really saying anything?