Baywatch barely stays afloat thanks to Dwayne Johnson and Zac Efron (review)

Baywatch

If ever there was a film to test the absolute limit of Dwayne Johnson’s seemingly limitless charisma, Baywatch would be it. A campy comedy based on a campy ’90s TV show whose chief claim to fame is the slow-motion shots of its female lifeguards running in the sand. At first blush, this might seem a bridge too far, even for someone with Johnson’s boundless magnetism. And yet, despite a nearly nonsensical plot and some pretty thinly drawn characters, Baywatch somehow manages to just barely stay afloat. It’s chiefly due to the chemistry of its two leads, Johnson and Zac Efron.

Johnson plays Mitch Buchannon, a former lieutenant and leader of a group of lifeguards known as Baywatch. The other members of his crack squad include Stephanie Holden (Ilfenesh Hadera) as his second in command and CJ Parker (Kelly Rohrbach). The group takes on three new trainees for the season: surfer Summer Quinn (Alexandra Daddario), Ronnie Greenbaum (Jon Bass) as the resident “tech guy”, and Matt Brody (Efron) as a disgraced Olympic Gold Medalist swimmer who is forced to join Baywatch to help rehabilitate his image after an unfortunate mishap in an Olympic event.

While keeping the bay safe by day, the group stumbles upon a convoluted plot. It involves bad guys smuggling drugs into the bay via yachts, a fishing company, and an exclusive beachside resort owned by Victoria Leeds (Priyanka Chopra). But rather than let the police investigate and arrest the criminals, Mitch decides to take matters into his own hands. Because who better to stop a ruthless drug dealing villainess than a lifeguard? The sheer absurdity of this notion is, in fact, mentioned multiple times. Of course, it’s a meta wink to how ridiculous this idea really is.

Meanwhile, Brody reluctantly takes part in Baywatch in the beginning. He eventually learns the importance of being a team player and a member of the Baywatch family. Ultimately he helps the crew take down Leeds and her evil drug empire (I’d say “Spoiler alert” here, but…c’mon!). Although the plot follows a fairly straight line from point A to point B to point double DDs, that’s hardly important. Saying that you watched Baywatch for the compelling story is like saying you buy Playboy for the articles.

What really helps make Baywatch worth watching is the fun and seemingly effortless banter between Johnson and Efron. Johnson plays the straight man to the proceedings with aplomb. It allows for Efron’s simpleminded Brody to say and do pretty much the first thing that enters his mind. And as the two joust both verbally and physically, it’s hard not to enjoy seeing these two remarkably charming actors going at it. Efron has made a nice living in the movies playing the dense, but ultimately sweet, bro (Neighbors, Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates). And he really leans into this persona to play Brody. While Johnson, as usual, is a captivating presence whose smile seems to jump off the screen. The pair looks like they’re having a good time, and when they share the screen, the movie buzzes right along.

Sadly, the same cannot be said for the female characters. They are all woefully underdeveloped (ironic pun completely unintended) and serve as little more than objects of attraction for all the main characters. Daddario’s characters showed some early promise and revealed some edge and attitude to Brody’s bro-ishness. But she quickly devolves into eye candy, being dragged from scene to scene. The same is true of Rohrbach’s CJ, who does little more than get Ronnie flustered whenever he’s around her. And Chopra’s villain is as one dimensional as a point. She does little beyond spouting the occasional “evil” line. (It’s like it was torn right out of the bad Bond villain’s handbook.)

The other supporting characters are a bit of a mixed bag. Bass’s prototypical nerd character, Ronnie, is often the butt of jokes. And his obvious deficiencies are played for laughs a bit too much. (“Oh look, he’s awkward around girls! Oh, look, he has hairy nipples!”) But this is somewhat mitigated by the fact that the writers decided to give him a giant penis (a fact that is alluded to more than a few times in the film) and make him the love interest to CJ (a pairing as unbelievable as Efron’s absurdly chiseled abs). But Bass is a game participant to the proceedings, even as he fumbles from one slapstick situation to the next. And Hannibal Burress absolutely steals the few scenes he is in with his deadpan delivery and impeccable comic timing.

The film also includes a couple of fairly obvious cameos from the Baywatch TV show. It might have felt like a nice homage at the time, but end up just feeling forced. The film is a pretty tame R, with cursing abound, but almost no nudity. And in somewhat of a surprise, despite its reputation, there is more male nudity in the film than female nudity.

There are a few legitimately amusing bits and some moments that are even laugh-out-loud funny. And viewed less as a movie and more as a Johnson/Efron charm delivery system, Baywatch can even be considered a success. The two are truly a delight to watch in action. But it’s hard to carry a film based solely on the considerable charms of just its two leads. And although it tries very hard to make its rickety premise work, by the second half of the film, the scenes begin to drag, and we’re left simply waiting for the end.

Final Reaction

Baywatch was always going to have a rather tough time trying to figure out what kind of a movie it wanted to be. At times it plays as a straight up action movie. While other times, it comes off as more of farce that gently pokes fun at just how ridiculous it is. But this lack of clear direction hampers the film’s energy as it drags on. And although the film is definitely salvaged by its winning leads, it’s hard to imagine what this movie would have looked like without them.

Rating: 2.5/5 Atoms

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Brian Chu
Brian Chu 221 posts

Brian Chu is a Staff Writer for Nerd Reactor and aspiring Jeopardy contestant. He thinks Picard is the best captain, Cumberbatch is the best Holmes, Bale is the best Batman, and Tennant is the best Doctor. Follow him @chumeister