Dwayne Johnson, the self-proclaimed “franchise Viagra” with an ever-growing list of huge opening weekends, will face his biggest box office challenge yet in just a few days, when his R-rated reboot of the cult television series Baywatch crosses swords with Johnny Depp and the return of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. That the films are targeting very different demographics goes without saying, but Disney’s long-running swashbuckler casts a wide net, and it should be interesting to find out if Johnson’s charisma can stand up to the lure of Captain Jack Sparrow.
Johnson stars as Mitch Buchannon, a dedicated lifeguard whose legendary feats of strength and bravery have turned him into something of a local celebrity – the kind of guy who inspires artists to build massive sand sculptures in his likeness, complete with enormous pecs and an impressive “front bump.” Mitch runs a tight ship, which immediately puts him at odds with newcomer Matt Brody (Zac Efron), an Olympic gold medalist assigned to the team in an effort to rehabilitate his public image in the wake of a downward spiral fueled by booze and drugs. Brody is content to spend his days pounding beers, ogling sunbathers and hitting on new recruit Summer (Alexandra Daddario), none of which endear him to his fellow teammates or his new boss.
When a new designer drug begins washing up on the beach – along with a dead body or two – all signs point to wealthy socialite Victoria Leeds (Priyanka Chopra), owner of the exclusive Huntley Club. But local law enforcement isn’t exactly keen to take the word of a lifeguard over that of a prominent businesswoman with major political ties, so Mitch and his team – including CJ Parker (Kelly Rohrbach), Stephanie Holden (Ilfenesh Hadera) and awkward trainee Ronnie Greenbaum (Jon Bass) – decide to take matters into their own hands, leading to a convoluted series of events held together by the barest of narrative threads.
Baywatch tries to emulate the superior 21 Jump Street reboot by blending raunchy comedy with police procedural elements, but frequently veers too far into high-octane action territory. One of the earliest setpieces involves Mitch and Brody zooming into the ocean to rescue the stranded passengers of a flaming yacht – which might have been thrilling, if not for the excruciatingly poor visual effects that make the notorious CG claws from X-Men Origins: Wolverine look like an absolute masterwork of digital wizardry, and inadvertently provide some of the film’s most memorable laughs. There are also numerous setups that have no real payoff, such as a scene where Efron shows up dressed as a woman for no discernible reason, then discards the disguise moments later. Was there a joke that was ultimately cut from this sequence, or was the idea of seeing Efron in drag meant to be humorous enough on its own?
That’s not to say that Baywatch is lacking in the humor department – in fact, the film is at its best during the brief moments where it’s not aspiring to some loftier goal, and simply embraces its comedic sensibilities. Bass in particular is a scene stealer (even though one of his key jokes is cribbed nearly verbatim from There’s Something About Mary) and Efron once again proves that he’ll do just about anything for a laugh – a trip to the morgue raises the bar for gross-out gags in what will surely be the film’s most talked-about sequence.
Had Baywatch been positioned solely as a comedy, director Seth Gordon might have been able to wrestle a decent film out of this affair – but as it stands, Baywatch struggles mightily with its own identity, especially during the overblown climax. Granted, the notion of lifeguards uncovering a sophisticated drug smuggling operation wouldn’t have been out of place in the original series – but there was a level of campiness to watching David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson maneuver through these kind of situations that is sorely missing here, and the combination of Johnson’s charisma and Efron’s physique isn’t quite enough to hold everything together.