There’s a point in this big-screen version of the ultra-cheesy beef- and cheesecake Nineties TV show in which Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Zac Efron both play with a dead guy’s dick and nutsack. We could not make this up if we tried. No one, including original stars David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson, ever toyed with floppy genitalia, at least not onscreen. But that was then. The new, anatomically correct Baywatch is rated R. How else could you distinguish it from the softcore tide of hot lifeguards, all running down the beach in a slo-mo orgy of jiggly boobs and flexing pecs? The movie thinks being hardcore means scenes with testicle squeezing and the spewing of a spectacular comet of vomit during an Olympic swimming event. Are you sold yet?
Of the recent spate of moldy TV material morphing into movies, with 21 Jump Street on top and CHIPs bringing up the rear, Baywatch barely escapes the basement. One reason it does: The Rock. Johnson is so good-natured a star presence, so eager for everyone to join the party that he’s irresistible. His character, Mitch Buchannon, is ex-military. As Emerald Bay’s head lifeguard, he trains his staff like an elite Florida police squad. The lead lifeguard locks horns with new recruit Matt Brody (Efron), a Ryan Lochte-like bad boy and two-time gold medalist who likes doing things his way. Mitch cuts him down with boy-band nicknames – “Hey, you, One Direction” or “Get over here, Bieber” or “Listen to me, High School Musical.” Somehow Johnson makes it work. He and Efron have an easy rapport that this kind of summer timewaster needs.
What it needs more is a functional script. But all director Seth Gordon (Horrible Bosses) has to work with are sitcom leftovers provided by screenwriters Damian Shannon and Mark Swift. Quantico‘s Priyanka Chopra plays the villainous Victoria Leeds, a take-charge beauty who uses her elite club on the beach to cover – wait for it – a drug operation. Has nothing changed since Miami Vice? Originality was never a Baywatch strong suit. The other members of Mitch’s lifeguard team, played by Alexandra Daddario, Ilfenesh Hadera and Kelly Rohrback (in the Pam Anderson role), are left trying to fight their way out of various babe stereotypes. Jon Bass is the designated comic relief as chubby Ronnie, the only lifeguard denied a body beautiful – he’s gifted instead with a heart of gold. No cliché is left unturned, and Gordon compensates with slick action, including a boardwalk bike race, a burning boat rescue and, of course, the morgue hideout scene featuring the dead guy’s junk.
To quote the 19th-century French critic and essayist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr – and really, you can’t watch Baywatch without thinking of him – plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Roughly translated, that means: As long as we buy this stuff, nothing is ever going to change. Think of yourself sitting down for a big two-hour wallow in instant stupid with a vat of popcorn, slathered in fake butter and possibly a mound of melted M&Ms on top. It feels great chugging it down, then your stomach hurts, your head aches and you puke the whole thing up so you can forget about it in the morning. That’s Baywatch in a nutshell. Happy puking.