I typically caution people against judging a movie before seeing it, pointing to 21 Jump Street as a prime example. On paper, it seemed like it’d be dreadful but it turned out to be a solid comedy, one that wasn’t beholden to the minor pop culture impact of its source. So I approached the big screen comedic version of Baywatch with 21 Jump Street in mind. After all, Baywatch had no real lasting cultural imprint. It was a show that lasted for a decade, but nobody can remember much about the show aside from the involvement of David Hasselhoff and the roster of Playboy Playmates running along the beaches wearing tight swimsuits shot in incredibly slow motion. Like Jump Street, there was plenty of room for the filmmakers of Baywatch to work with in crafting their own comedic take on the show. Too bad director Seth Gordon and the assorted team of screenwriters credited couldn’t be bothered to find any comedy in the premise. Baywatch is an early frontrunner for the worst movie of 2017. This is a movie with no wit, no imagination, and no laughs throughout its two tedious hours.
The plot, if we’re being generous, revolves around the lifeguards patrolling the shores of Emerald Bay, led by the bulking and beloved leader Mitch Buchannon (Dwayne “The Rock“ Johnson). Along with his trusted colleagues Stephanie (Ilfenesh Hadera) and C.J. (Kelly Rohrbach), Mitch is ready to oversee tryouts for new members to their lifesaving team. Summer (Alexandra Daddario) has vigorously trained and is all but assured a spot. The heart and determination of Ronnie (Jon Bass) allows him to overcome his physical limitations and join the team. Which leaves Mitch to reluctantly take on Matt Brody (Zac Efron), a down on his luck Olympic gold medalist whose hard-partying has him at rock bottom (and apparently court ordered to be a lifeguard; I don’t know the film isn’t entirely clear about this). The peaceful shores of Emerald Bay are plagued with a new designer drug, and its distribution raises the suspicion of Mitch. Business woman Victoria Leeds (Priyanka Chopra) is somehow tied to the wave of drugs and murders that are happening in this once-quiet community, and it’s up to these dedicated lifeguards to unravel this nonsensical masterplan.
At first, the idea of lifeguards investigating drug trafficking is simply the subject for a throwaway line intended as a joke. There’s an attempt to try and build comedic tension from the premise by having the lifeguards irritate local policeman, Sergeant Ellerbees (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). Except it’s another undeveloped character that drags out the proceedings of what should be an enjoyable, innocuous affair into something that might be played on repeat at Guantanamo Bay in the very near future.
Seth Gordon has no feel for the film’s tone and that could possibly have something to do with the film’s six credited writers (Story credited to Jay Scherick & David Ronn and Thomas Lennon & Robert Ben Garant with the screenplay credited to Damian Shannon and Mark Swift). Things are already dire when the film completely abandons a majority of its supporting characters to follow the lead trilogy of Johnson, Efron, and Daddario into a straightforward 21 Jump Street ripoff with really bad jokes.
A comedy can get away with having either bad or obvious plotting if it’s able to deliver laughs, and there just aren’t laughs in Baywatch. I could have both of my hands amputated and still count the amount of times I laughed on a single hand. It’s either pop culture references or dick jokes. That’s the extent of the gags. Both Dwayne Johnson and Zac Efron are very good comedic actors, but this film doesn’t play to their strengths as such in the least. So much of that humdrum dynamic is the fault of the script and Seth Gordon’s uninterested direction. Nobody in the film really has a character arc because nobody is actually a defined character, so it’s impossible to craft jokes to fit these characters. For the most part, the characters of Baywatch are simply defined by their physical elements, though this is most noticeable with the women. It doesn’t matter if it’s the schlubby Ronnie or the busty C.J., and this extends to even the villain and the hunky leads, these are people defined by their body type. This is, again, something that the film could get away with it knew how to comically skew these tropes.
There are two aspects where the woeful ineptitude of Baywatch are front and center. One is the first big rescue that Matt accompanies Mitch on, involving a burning boat in the middle of the bay. The flames surrounding the boat are below the level you might find in an original movie on SyFy. Mitch jumps on the boat and the astoundingly inferior effects are even in closer focus, distractingly so. Like every aspect of Baywatch, this could be handled in a way to display a bit of cleverness except there’s simply no cleverness to be had. Which brings us to the second piece of astounding ineptitude, the cameos of David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson. Look, I’d understand if you were pissed at me for divulging that information but their names appear in the opening credits so their appearances aren’t the least bit surprising. More confusing, they’re appearing as their old characters and thus share the same name with two other characters in the movie – something else that could’ve worked if it were the least bit funny.
Sitting through Baywatch I began to wonder if this was the worst movie I’ve seen this year or one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen all-time. Not that that it’s working at a level of technical ineptitude on the scale of, say, Manos: The Hands of Fate, but that it had a massive budget, capable comedic actors, and a large sandbox of topic to play with only to cull nothing of interest with any of that…for two whole hours intended as comedy. I found myself more entertained by the character and plot inconsistencies in the movie or the lone person laughing in the theater than the movie itself. In fact, I had more laughs with my friend in the parking lot afterwards than I did during the whole punishing two-hour affair.