Hollywood loves a formula. When 21 Jump Street became a huge success a few years ago, and 22 Jump Street proved that it wasn’t a one-off fluke, we should’ve known to prepare for a bunch of raunchy comedies that provided new spins on TV properties. But as this year’s CHiPS and now Baywatch prove, it takes a lot more than an R-rated take to make a great (or even good) film.
Mitch Buchannon (Dwayne Johnson) is a local icon for Emerald Bay, due in part to all the lives he’s saved over the years. His lifeguarding team, which includes CJ Parker (Kelly Rohrbach) and Stephanie Holen (Ilfenesh Hadera), is looking for three new recruits. They select the ready and capable Summer Quinn (Alexandra Daddario), the equally ready Ronnie Greenbaum (Jon Bass), and the disgraced Olympic swimmer Matt Brody (Zac Efron), who’s on the team as a part of his probation. When Mitch discovers drugs are floating into the bay, he makes it the team’s mission to take down the source, businesswoman Victoria Leeds (Priyanka Chopra), to the consternation of local cop Sgt. Ellerbee (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II).
One of the keys to the success of 21 Jump Street was how committed it was to its own reality. It’s over the top, and it knows it, but it doesn’t try to zoom out to make a comment on how over the top it is. Baywatch doesn’t seem to get that lesson. The film’s opening scene suggests something that’s pure parody, with the title of the film slamming down behind Mitch as he rescues an injured parasailor. But the film keeps getting bogged down by reality, including a number of times where someone will point out that cops, rather than lifeguards, should be trying to solve the case at the center of the film. By repeatedly acknowledging that reality, it deflates the film’s chances to be even remotely near the level of 21 Jump Street.
The film’s approach to comedy is also just shoddy. There’s an occasional joke that works, and yes, some of them are meta jokes, but the film frequently tries to make laughs out of material that’s more cringe-worthy than anything. Take an early scene with Ronnie, who gets aroused by CJ. He attempts to hide it by falling face-first onto a deck chair…where his junk gets stuck between the slats. It becomes a big thing (yes, read that both ways) as more people surround Ronnie, CJ, and ultimately Mitch, as they try to help him out. It’s cringe-worthy.
Here’s the thing: there’s actually some decent potential with some of the storylines here. Mitch and Brody have the obligatory mentor/mentee repartee, while CJ and Ronnie have a fairly sweet romantic subplot. There’s also a much smaller romantic-ish subplot for Brody and Summer. (Poor Stephanie gets nothing.) But the film doesn’t invest enough in any of the characters to really make any of these subplots work.
The cast itself is largely fine. Johnson is as likable as he always is, and Efron is basically playing a variation of his Neighbors character. The rest of the team is solid. The biggest standout, in a fairly limited role, is Chopra. Despite her limited screen time, Chopra makes the most of her villainous role. She steals the screen with her sheer presence, and when she’s referred to as a Bond villain at one point, it made me think, “Ooh, yes. That’d be perfect.” If nothing else, hopefully someone will take note of her performance here and give her a bigger, better villain role somewhere.
So Baywatch ultimately fails at figuring out what it wants to be, in spite of some potential with its cast and characters. While it’s not the most unusual result for a film of this size, it’s unfortunate because of the potential that’s clearly there. If they make another one of these films, hopefully they’ll figure out what went wrong and correct it.