The fact that a movie adaptation of Baywatch was made really speaks to just how much Hollywood will adapt anything these days. Once the biggest show on television throughout the 90’s, Baywatch is where you went to scratch that unspeakable itch that exabytes of online porn now do a better job of scratching for people in the present day. It was a show full of jiggling breasts and fit men for all manner of adolescents, and adults who tried to lie about watching the show for its intriguing procedural elements. By today’s standards, Baywatch is a show so ludicrous and unrealistic that it’s degraded into pure parody. So, how does one parody something that’s already a parody?
Well, Paramount’s Baywatch movie gave that challenge the old college try… But it might have been better if it hadn’t. Thanks to a flimsy script full of weak jokes and sloppy storytelling, Baywatch feels like the all-too-predictable final result of adapting a poorly-aged TV sensation that has no business being converted to the movie medium. TV-to-film adaptations have always been dicey, though Paramount probably has one of the most high-profile TV-to-film successes with its Mission: Impossible franchise, so their confidence is fitting. Sony Pictures’ 21 Jump Street also seemed to figure out how to spin gold from yarn with its surprisingly brilliant, comedy-tweaked adaptation of another former TV sensation that’s aged like old milk. Even if it’s tough, adapting TV to film can be done, in the right hands.
Fittingly, Baywatch tries to chase the 21 Jump Street gravy train that Sony Pictures stumbled onto back in 2012 as well (and continued to make a decent sequel out of in 2014), but it does so without properly grasping what made 21 Jump Street such a fantastic surprise hit five years ago. So much of this movie’s script feels confused, clearly suffering from way too many cooks in the kitchen with the amount of writers that contributed to it, and that leaves the bulk of the movie to try and fall back on immature dick jokes and other such body humour. This quickly reaches the point where the nostalgic adult audience, whom Baywatch wants to appeal to most with its R-rating, will likely wonder why this movie didn’t just go after the teen audience it truly craves. I wonder that myself, honestly.
Baywatch stars Dwayne Johnson as Mitch Buchannon, David Hasselhoff’s iconic character from the original TV series, who works as head lifeguard for the Florida beach community of Emerald Bay. Mitch’s beach has suffered a constant array of outlandish crimes (one of many references to the lunacy of the classic TV series that this movie adapts), and because of this, Mitch’s superior, Captain Thorpe, played here by Rob Huebel, insists that he train arrogant, yet disgraced Olympic swimmer, Matt Brody, played by Zac Efron. Among Baywatch’s many story angles here is a buddy comedy of sorts, as Mitch and Brody inevitably run into friction with one another, and have to learn to work together to stop an ambitious criminal in their midst.
Had Baywatch just focused in on this direction, it might have turned out a little better, since Johnson and Efron headline a pretty strong lead cast, all of whom serve as the highlight of the movie. Johnson and Efron have fantastic comedic chemistry with one another in particular, as two over-muscled meatheads with clashing egos, especially when Efron proves to be the voice of reason that asks why the Emerald Bay lifeguards never just call the police when they’re stopping crimes that they shouldn’t be stopping. As much as many gags in Baywatch just don’t work, I do have to admit that Efron pointing out the blatant lack of realism in the TV show that this movie adapts does manage to provide some solid chuckles, since it’s well-timed, and Efron has naturally proven himself to be a strong comedic actor over the past several years.
Alexandra Daddario is another standout among the cast as Summer Quinn, another recognizable character from the TV series who is now first being inducted into the Emerald Bay lifeguards. Daddario provides an effective foil and love interest to Efron’s Brody, whenever the script doesn’t get in her way anyway, and it is fun to see her reunite with Johnson here, after the two played a father/daughter combo in 2015 disaster flick, San Andreas. She’s also nicely complemented among the female lifeguards by Kelly Rohrbach as Pamela Anderson’s iconic character, CJ Parker, and Ilfenesh Hadera’s Stephanie Holden, although CJ is definitely given more to do between those two recognizable women from the original TV show.
CJ’s heightened role in the story isn’t so much because she’s one of the most famous Baywatch characters, alongside Mitch, but is mainly because another would-be lifeguard named Ronnie Greenbaum, played by up-and-comer Jon Bass, pines constantly for CJ, and joins the lifeguard squad specifically to be around her, yet inevitably ends up humiliated every time he tries to win her over. This might have been funny, had the script made CJ more oblivious and less sweet. Rohrbach is directed to play her as if she’s inexplicably attracted to Bass’s fat, awkward loser, somehow making Ronnie the one that’s too stupid to see the obvious. That’s among the many jokes in this movie that really don’t work, especially since CJ’s behaviour around the hopeless Ronnie feels way too unrealistic, even by the standards of this movie! Moreover, Ronnie is somehow friends with Alexandria Daddario’s Summer, apparently, but if he struggles so much with beautiful women, how is he able to talk to her so easily? Again, even by the standards of this movie, it’s not well-explained, and doesn’t make sense.
The one character that is pretty consistent throughout Baywatch though is its villain, Victoria Leeds, who feels like one of the only characters that hasn’t been tripped up at certain points by the script in some way, in most cases anyway. Victoria, played by accomplished Bollywood actress and current Quantico star, Priyanka Chopra, is a pretty straightforward moustache-twirler with an unrealistically complex plan to cause trouble at Emerald Bay, but there’s a charm to her, especially since Chopra does pull off a ‘bad girl’ vibe pretty well. The villain plot doesn’t work as well as it should, but Chopra isn’t the problem, especially since she claims to be a longtime Baywatch fan who is giving her simple performance everything she’s got. That comical self-awareness in Chopra’s performance hints at a better, more tightly-constructed Baywatch movie that could have been, but not even her menacing baddie is enough to give Baywatch an effective sense of stakes.
Baywatch wisely doesn’t take itself seriously, for the most part, but whenever it deviates from its simple desire to be a 21 Jump Street-esque action-comedy, instead focusing on gross-out humour or trying to add emotional weight to Mitch or Brody, it really starts to come apart. Baywatch feels like an attempt at a parody that just didn’t have enough funny material to stretch itself to feature length, hence why so many other writers took cracks at its script. The result from that is a strangely confused and sloppily-constructed movie that has characters contradicting their thoughts and actions between scenes, which could have been played off as a joke in the right hands, but for whatever reason, it’s not.
Instead, the final script for Baywatch tries to fill in the gaps with forced gross-out humour and dick jokes that just don’t feel like they belong here. It stinks of a movie that the studio just stopped caring about at a certain point, leaving the actors to try and salvage it with whatever patchwork script they had to work with. In fairness, the actors do manage to be the best part of Baywatch, like I said, but the story feels too unfocused, and yet not present enough.
Brody’s backstory is most notably only hinted at during his introduction for example, with so much untapped character development left on the table for him. From there, the movie then just meanders around a loosely connected series of comedic set pieces, occasionally forcing a misguided character moment, and only fully committing to its balls-out absurdity in an admittedly decent climax, if you don’t care about said absurdity. Like I said, when you try to parody something that’s already a parody, all you’re going to be left with is something that’s impossible to take seriously, for the wrong reasons.
Seth Gordon directs Baywatch, which feels fitting, since he’s dabbled in both film and television throughout his directing career. Gordon has also helmed a few solid comedies in the past too, most notably 2011’s Horrible Bosses, and he does seem to do what he can with the problematic script he was given. Gordon at least seems to be aware that playing Baywatch straight is a fools’ errand as well, even when he has to try and direct around scenes that are supposed to be more serious, such as the focal character struggles between Mitch and Brody.
As I mentioned, when Gordon is allowed to fully commit to Baywatch’s silliness, the movie is at least passable. Gordon does seem to work well with the actors too, managing to somewhat salvage a project that’s seemingly dead-on-arrival from its pre-production phase. That said though, Gordon really doesn’t know how to direct action very well at this point, since Baywatch’s action scenes are pretty terrible, sadly. There’s a lot of aggressive cutting around fights, especially when Johnson is smacking around thugs, which doesn’t really play to Johnson’s strengths, and just makes fights feel un-engaging, since they lack impact.
It’s also worth noting that, even by the standards of a comedy, Baywatch has some truly terrible special effects too. The fire effects in the movie are especially horrible, being so blatantly fake and unconvincing that even the most uninitiated of moviegoers will never believe that something is actually on fire in this movie! Gordon is out of his depth with Baywatch in certain spots like this, but honestly, it’s tough to blame him, since he’s clearly working hard to try and elevate a movie that was, frankly, probably never going to truly work.
In a different set of hands, maybe Baywatch could have been another 21 Jump Street, a great dark horse comedy hit that could have provided another much-needed franchise for Paramount. In the end though, it’s just the latest comedy misfire in a year that has disappointingly botched virtually every high-profile comedy movie it’s attempted at this point, with Warner Bros.’ outstanding The LEGO Batman Movie being the only exception. Speaking of Warner Bros., they also had the same idea of trying to chase the success of 21 Jump Street recently, via this past March’s CHiPs, another sorry TV-to-film adaptation that has no business existing. Baywatch is at least better than CHiPs, but that’s definitely faint praise.
The harsh truth is, most of Baywatch just doesn’t work. Sometimes it’s amusing, sometimes it’s charming, and its lead cast and director do what they can to save it. Too often however, Baywatch is confused, unfunny and excessively immature. It doesn’t really make good use of its R-rating either, since its action scenes are terrible, its f-bombs aren’t truly necessary, and beyond one really out-of-place penis gag at a morgue, there’s no nudity either. Yes, an R-rated Baywatch movie couldn’t even be bothered to have proper nudity in it, beyond that one penis gag that no one wants to see (and Jon Bass’s ass at one point, I guess), and since that’s clearly a prosthetic dick, it doesn’t count anyway. I’m not normally so crass, but this may be a fair application of the popular modern colloquialism; You had one job, Baywatch.
This really begs the question of why Paramount attempted a Baywatch movie that didn’t just go for a PG-13 rating and market itself toward teenagers, since it feels like a movie that’s truly made for teenagers who aren’t able to currently watch better and funnier low-brow R-rated comedies. There are a few shining spots of effective parody that somewhat capitalize on the ridiculous source material, but mostly, Baywatch’s R-rating is merely one of the many things about it that’s completely mis-conceived. If Paramount was hoping to launch a franchise with this, I don’t think they’re going to get one. Instead, Baywatch goes down as the latest failed attempt to translate a once-beloved TV show to the cinematic medium. 21 Jump Street may have captured lightning in a bottle, but some small screen cheese should really stay in the rear-view mirror, no matter how popular it once was.
- Great lead cast, particularly Johnson's and Efron's leads
- A few legitimately funny Baywatch-satirizing jokes
- Gordon's directing puts in an enthusiastic effort to enhance the humour
- Characters can be very inconsistent, even between scenes
- Storytelling is a confused, unfocused mess
- Too many awkward gags that really don't work
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