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Baywatch kinda baffled me. This R-rated comedy adaptation of the cheesy but sincere beach-set action series — which somehow became a worldwide phenomenon in the 1990s — is a movie that should be as enjoyably ridiculous as its source material. In some instances, it is. Director Seth Gordon (Horrible Bosses) and a brigade of screenwriters (including The State alumni and confessed hacks-for-hire Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant) appear to understand that this shouldn’t be a challenging ride. Like the show, it’s about an insanely attractive lifeguard crew whose members really throw themselves into their work. But the product teeters between absurdity and earnestness.
Leading the charge is Mitch Buchannon (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, assuming the David Hasselhoff role), a superhero in swim trunks who is always on alert, ensuring that his beach is safe for all who frolic on it. He doesn’t have time for showboating pretty boys — enter Zac Efron’s washed-up (figuratively and often literally) Olympic gold medalist Matt Brody, who shows up as a new lifeguard recruit. Johnson and Efron, two men who have discovered they can use their chiseled looks as comic fodder, have a nice, ball-busting chemistry. Buchannon hits the newcomer with nicknames such as “Bieber” and “High School Musical,” while the unfazed Brody mocks the boss’s alpha-male intensity.
There are also, of course, ravishing beauties on this team, including model Kelly Rohrbach, stepping into Pamela Anderson’s role as slo-mo-running blonde C.J., and, as the resident brunette, True Detective’s Alexandra Daddario (who was hilariously miscast as Johnson’s daughter in 2015’s San Andreas). There’s even a pudgy guy (Jon Bass), mostly here to endure humiliating moments — usually involving his genitals — in front of his crush, C.J.
Buchannon and his gang see themselves not just as beach protectors but also as above-the-law avengers. The movie’s funniest moments come when a cop (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) constantly reminds them that they don’t have the legal authority to do the crazy shit they do — breaking into a morgue and tampering with (or, in this case, molesting) corpses, for example, or chasing down perps. That doesn’t stop the crew from trying to take down a wealthy woman (Quantico’s Priyanka Chopra, trying to be dastardly) who is behind some evil plot involving drugs and real estate.
Gordon sets aside straight-faced moments where Johnson’s tough but well-meaning superior attempts to rein in Efron’s cocky subordinate, who ultimately learns to keep his self-destructive ass in check and be a part of the team. (Think An Officer and a Gentleman, but with bikinis and board shorts.) These odd moments of seriousness make Baywatch a weirdly uneven experience. As balls-to-the-wall as it gets with both its raunchy material and its explosion-heavy action sequences, it also at times is as awkwardly sincere as the show once was. And because it clocks in at an unnecessary two hours, you get a lot of tonal seesawing. (Oh, if you’re wondering: Yes, Hasselhoff and Anderson are shoehorned in with thankless cameos.)
I will say this, though: Johnson has this movie-star thing down. Even though he’s playing a character whose pathological stubbornness edges toward the sociopathic, he oozes charisma and self-effacing suavity whenever the camera is aimed at him. Johnson practically carries this movie on his shoulders — the movie’s title literally hovers over him in the opening sequence. No matter how ill-conceived and out-of-whack this flick gets, he wears Baywatch well.