In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it.
Of all the TV shows which could benefit from a cheekily satirical big screen adaptation, you’d think that Baywatch is the perfect candidate. Let’s be honest, Baywatch was a complete garbage party of a show, made popular not by its commitment to storytelling so much as its commitment to exhibiting the hardbodied physiques of its cast to a pre-internet audience comprised of hot and bothered teens (and Dad). Yet as low-hanging as the fruit might have been, the 2017 iteration makes nary an attempt to pick it, offering not the gonzo comedy we all hoped for, but rather a 2 hour, R-rated episode of ACTUAL BAYWATCH.
Starsky & Hutch remains the gold standard for this sort of thing (kudos also to 21 Jump Street, which also nailed it), and did so by finding what was ludicrous about the source material and leaning into it very hard. At the same time, a compelling (enough) story was told in which these parody versions of beloved characters (or in the case of Jump Street, the next generation of characters) are given as much weight as something like this can hold. Baywatch opens with what looks like an intention to do exactly that – look no further than our next president, The Rock, to ‘get it’ – but it fizzles almost immediately after the epic title card.
What follows is only sometimes a half-cooked parody, but mostly a bad-boy-goes-good tale layered over an improbable (but not comically improbable) cops and robbers caper straight from the annals of, well, Baywatch.
Reminder: Baywatch, the show, was absolute crap.
The Rock (our next president) plays Mitch Buchanan, leader of the elite squad of lifeguards who protect the shores of wherever this occurs (I really don’t care). It’s the yearly lifeguard tryouts event, and only a few lucky applicants will get to join the ranks of Baywatch. Amongst them is Matt Brody (Zac Efron), a former Olympic gold medal-winning swimmer whose partying lifestyle has left him in disgrace and forced to do community service. His punishment comes in the form of joining Baywatch, much to the dismay of Buchanan, who takes his job way too seriously. His boss, however, sees Brody as a great way to help the reputation of their outfit resulting in better funding from the city.
Meanwhile, a property baron is trying to flood the beach with drugs so that she can obtain more beachfront real estate. This means that Brody and Buchanan will have to put aside their differences and fight crime! For two whole hours! Which is way longer than any comedy film should ever be! Splash splash!
Every once in a while there’s a knowing rib at the expense of the source material (“is it just me or does she always seem to be moving in slow motion?”) and every time it falls flat. Every. Single. Time. This is due entirely to the film’s aggressive commitment to tonal indecisiveness. In not committing to anything at all, Baywatch succeeds at almost nothing. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 proved that a Hasselhoff cameo is somehow still workable. Baywatch counters this argument soundly.
And that’s what’s weird about this odd non-parody. Hasselhoff plays his character from the show … but so does The Rock (who is definitely going to be our next president, just sayin). But it’s also suggested that maybe The Rock inherited the job and they just happen to have the same name. I don’t know. Same goes for CJ (originally played by Pamela Anderson, here by Kelly Rohrbach), who exists in much the same way as our dual Mitches. It doesn’t make any sense. Not that it has to, but when so many jokes fall flat (or are not even made in the first place) it’s easy to notice these things.
You know what drove me nuts? Brody is constantly questioning why the Baywatch squad is out acting like police officers when they are actually just lifeguards. It’s a funny question, and if the film went full-parody it could have been teased into a movie-length gag. But instead it’s left adrift (beach pun!).
Whatever. It’s a Baywatch movie, so ultimately it only has to be watchable – BAY-WATCHABLE!
::vomits, dies, rescued by lifeguards::
And it is. Really, it’s perfectly entertaining, even with it’s excessive runtime, but with just a little bit more effort (like, even just the tiniest bit) it could have been so so so so so much more. It’s a huge missed opportunity, and it ends up feeling cynical. Guh.
Go revisit Starsky & Hutch instead. It’s better than you remember.
Baywatch opens in Philly theaters today.