Baywatch movie review: Lifeguard reboot reckons it's a comedy but is rather short on jokes
Before we begin, a confession: I have never seen a single episode of Baywatch. This mortifying gap in my cultural education, which could be likened to never having attended an opera, or read Ulysses, can be partly explained by the fact that I spent most of the 1990s in France.
But surely a show that begins with formidably endowed, scantily clad women running along the sand in slow motion must have gone down a bomb in the home of the bikini? There's no excuse for it, simple as that.
Most of you will not be so ignorant, but with the help of the internet I've endeavoured to catch up. This is what I've learned so far: (1) David Hasselhoff is not a very good actor (2) Pamela Anderson is not a very good actor (3) the makers of Scooby Doo should have sued the producers of Baywatch for robbing all their plots, and (4) real Los Angeles lifeguards are possibly not as essential to the city's existential safety as Mitch Buchannon and his team were.
Baywatch was silly, almost as silly as the Hoff's other big hit, Knight Rider, and in this age of lazy winks and nudges this movie spin-off was always going to be a spoof.
Dwayne Johnson plays Mitch, the absurdly popular head lifeguard at a busy Los Angeles county beach. Every morning, people greet him ecstatically on his way to work, and mutter grateful stories of how he saved their lives. In fact Mitch saves one right off the bat, jumping to the roaring Pacific to rescue an injured abseiler.
Bluff, friendly, ever-so-slightly smug, Mitch is surrounded by a handsome, adoring team that includes Stephanie Holden (Ilfenesh Hadera) and CJ Parker (Kelly Rohrbach), and that entourage is about to be expanded by new recruits who make it through the annual try-outs. A beautiful young surfer called Summer Quinn (Alexandra Daddario) makes the grade, as does a winning computer nerd called Ronnie (Jon Bass).
But Mitch is not best pleased when, on the orders of the local police chief, he's also saddled with a cocky former Olympian, Matt Brody (Zac Efron).
Brody won two gold medals at the Rio Olympics, but disgraced himself by getting drunk the night before the team relay, throwing the race and throwing up in the pool. Selfish and arrogant, he thinks being a lifeguard will be a breeze, but Mitch is about to teach him some harsh lessons. And the Baywatch team have bigger things to worry about when a beautiful businesswoman (everyone in this film is beautiful) called Victoria Leeds (Priyanka Chopra) unleashes a plan to buy up the whole seafront and privatise the beach.
That's a Scooby Doo plot if ever I heard one, and Seth Gordon's film reckons it's in on the joke. Most of the rescue scenes (oddly, given the fact that this is a movie about lifeguards, there aren't all that many of them) are outlandish, absurdly melodramatic, an approach which may - who knows? - seem hilarious to fans of the original show. Johnson's incredible likeability has been remarked upon many times before, and he and a good-humoured supporting cast attack their roles with gusto.
But Baywatch wants to have its cake and eat it, taking the rise out of its premise at one moment, and asking us to take it seriously the next. Also, the jokes are heavy-handed, waterlogged: at one point we wait politely for 10 minutes while one character extricates his engorged penis from the wooden slats of a sun-lounger, an idea that might have looked better on paper. Even the inevitable cameos from David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson are mishandled, thrown away.
What fun there is to be had is supplied by Dwayne Johnson, and Zac Efron, who's reinvented himself as a surprisingly accomplished comic actor in recent years. His buffed up body looks ridiculous at times, but is perhaps intended to be, and he and Johnson exchange baroque insults with style. Slow-motion scenes are another running joke, but most of the time the cast just stand around, looking hot. They're pretty good at it.
Baywatch (15A, 119mins) ★★
Films coming soon...
Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, Connie Nielsen, David Thewlis); After the Storm (Hiroshi Abe, Kirin Kiki, Yoko Maki, Satomi Kobayashi); My Life as a Courgette (Claude Barras, Gaspard Schlatter, Sixtine Murat).