In Baywatch, Lt. Mitch Buchannon (Dwayne Johnson) and his team of lifeguards, including second-in-commmand Stephanie Holden (Ilfenesh Holden) and veteran C.J. Parker (Kelly Rohrback), protect the beaches and the bay in Emerald Bay, Florida. Having made over 500 rescues in his career, Mitch is beloved by the community, to the annoyance of local beat cop Garner Ellerbee and Mitch’s superior, Captain Thorne. Mitch and his team view themselves as the Bay’s last line of defense, risking their and even solving major crimes. After adding newcomers to their squad, including reckless Olympian Matt Brody (Zac Efron), they soon find themselves in too deep when a nefarious landowner (Priyanka Chopra) begins to stir up trouble and they also discover a potential new drug that threatens their entire beach and its patrons.
Running from 1989-2001, the original Baywatch quickly became one of the most watched television series of all time, becoming known for its emphasis on tanned beach bodies and, yes, slow-motion running. Reigniting the career of 80s star David Hasselhoff (Knight Rider) and helping Pamela Anderson to become a household name, Baywatch appeared to take itself seriously as an intense drama about saving lives. (The problem with this approach is that more people were watching for the bikinis—and, yes, slow-motion running—than the dramatic tension.)
The reboot, however, wisely sidesteps the show’s false sincerity by constantly winking at the camera. (“This all sounds like the plot of a cheesy, old tv series,” Efron muses.) Attempting to enjoy the same success as the recent 21 Jump Street series, Baywatch has marketed itself as a fun, action adventure which, for the most part, it seems to be. While the script lacks the sharpness of the Jump Street films, the film’s desire to poke fun at the show’s (and genre) conventions and the light-hearted atmosphere on set helps Baywatch to stay afloat.
Holding it all together, though, is Johnson himself. It is no coincidence that he is the centrepiece of all promotional materials. In fact, a film like this is a reminder of why he is the highest paid actor in the business today. The man has such charisma that he seems able to elevate any material that he’s given. A fault line destroying the coast in San Andreas? Sure! Stalling franchises like Fast and the Furious or GI Joe? Send him in! (For crying out loud, news of a potential presidential bid was circling the internet last week… and people loved the idea!)
In this regard, Baywatch is no different. Despite the fact that the jokes don’t always work and the material is lacking at times, Johnson’s ability to display both bravado and self-deprecation simultaneously draws you in. Perhaps the best example of this comes in the film’s title card reveal. Johnson emerges from the waters with fire in his eyes, carrying the body of an injured swimmer. Suddenly, the title emerges from the horizon in grandiose style, filling the rest of the screen behind him. It’s a scene that received giggles from our audience… but, given the over-the-top nature of the visuals, we also know that we’ve been invited to do so. (Incidentally, those giggles soon turned to cheers, as well.) In moments like this, we can see that he’s having a blast, so we’re willing to hop on the ride as well.
Usually at this time, I would shift the conversation to discuss some of the more theological themes that break into the film. While I could easily delve into ideas about the nature of sacrificing our lives for others or the public’s responsibility to care for one another, honestly, that’s not what this film is about. While Mitch is definitely a community example in the way he conducts himself, the film, ultimately, concerns itself most with its desire to satirize its own genre. (Although, to be fair, Mitch’s objective standard of doing what is right does shines a light on his entire community and calls them all to a standard higher than their own… hey, look! I did it!)
Eventually, there will come a time where Johnson’s star is not the center of Hollywood’s universe. It happens to everyone and, at some point, his films will eventually lose their sheer sense of glee.
But Baywatch will not be that film.
Baywatch is in theatres now. The film is rated R for language and graphic male nudity.