In a much-discussed recent GQ profile, the ubiquitous Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson—a onetime pro wrestler now serving as the hunky tongue in the cheek of seemingly every other big-budget action movie—confirms his ambition extends as far as perhaps, one day, considering a run for president. (Because everyone with political ambitions apparently now goes straight for the top job without bothering with a stint on their state legislature or local school board. What’s the point of public service if so few people can see you doing it?)
It’s a testament to the upside-down political moment our nation finds itself in that the idea of a Dwayne Johnson presidential bid hardly sounds weird at all. After all, he’s not only a celebrity but, unlike some commanders in chief I could name, smart, personable, and widely liked! Whether Johnson’s nuclear-grade charisma and room-illuminating smile will one day save our republic remains an open question. But even they aren’t enough to salvage Baywatch, director Seth Gordon’s witless adaptation of the pleasantly ludicrous 1989–2001 TV series about the adventures of a pack of well-oiled lifeguards.
Johnson plays head Baywatcher Mitch Buchannon, the part made famous by David Hasselhoff, who like his former co-star Pamela Anderson, appears here in a minuscule torch-passing cameo. Mitch is a legend in the geographically vague beach town of Emerald Bay, the subject of giant sand sculptures and apocryphal local myths. (“Is it true he invented Google?” breathes one admirer.) As the movie begins, Mitch is overseeing the annual tryouts for the elite Baywatch team.
Contenders include the hardworking, by-the-book Summer (Alexandra Daddario, who co-starred as the Rock’s daughter in San Andreas); local dork Ronnie (Jon Bass), who’s driven principally by his debilitating crush on the gorgeous lifeguard CJ (swimsuit model Kelly Rohrbach); and Matt Brody (Zac Efron), a disgraced Olympic swimming star. Brody is a pretty-boy party animal in the Ryan Lochte mode whose resistance to teamwork—or work in general—soon earns him the scorn of the upstanding Mitch. One of the movie’s few funny running gags has Mitch addressing Brody exclusively by such derogatory nicknames as “New Kids on the Block,” “Malibu Ken,” and in a jab at Efron’s teenybopper beginnings, “High School Musical.”
The middle stretch of Baywatch mainly involves dick jokes, elaborate multistage ones based on the debatable assumption that dicks in themselves—having them, touching them, talking about them—are hilarious. Sometimes they get caught, fully erect, between the slats of beach chairs while the blonde babes who got them in that predicament attempt gamely to prize them out! Sometimes they’re the dicks of dead guys in morgue drawers, which must be examined and handled up close by a skeeved-out Zac Efron for no clear reason except to humiliate his character! The important thing is that they are penises, and thus provocative of general hilarity.
In its commitment to envelope-pushing raunch, Baywatch seems to be trying to capture the magic of 21 Jump Street and 22 Jump Street, the rare film adaptations of a junky TV series that succeeded in finding their own tone of weird subversive humor. But those movies also had Chris Miller and Philip Lord, a writing team of unusual cleverness and heart (The Lego Movie, The Last Man on Earth). The writers of Baywatch, Damian Shannon and Mark Swift, have been responsible for such slasher-film retreads as the 2009 Friday the 13th and Freddy vs. Jason.
Their script careens as madly as one of the lifeguard team’s jet-skis between comedy (poking a dead guy’s dick!), drama (will Efron’s irresponsible Brody ever complete his coming-of-age story arc?), and action (will the ’watchers be able to thwart the bay-endangering plans of evil country-club developer Victoria Leeds, played by Priyanka Chopra?). A big action set piece in which the gang saves some models from a burning yacht is a blur of CGI and rapid cross-cutting in which the triumphant outcome is never sufficiently in doubt to create any suspense.* And a subplot in which Emerald Bay’s police chief (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) objects to the Baywatchers’ interference in his jurisdiction melts away without ever being resolved because honestly, who wouldn’t want the Rock in charge of their local law enforcement, properly certified or no?
Baywatch the show was primarily an excuse to watch as cheesecakey physiques of both sexes jogged along the beach in slo-mo, artificially inflated parts a-jiggle. The film version provides its share of such voyeuristic pleasures, fairly equally divided between Rohrbach’s and Daddario’s pillowy cleavage and the complex igneous formations of Johnson’s and Efron’s chests. In a surreal gag that almost achieves liftoff, whenever anyone sees the luscious CJ running she subjectively appears to be in slow motion, a fact the characters confirm by consulting with each other as she chugs sexily past. Baywatch could have done with more such goofy meta-moments, treating the human body as a site of pleasure and fun rather than abjection and derision. (Tee-hee, weiners!) But I will say that for a movie this focused on bouncing half-naked bodies (especially a movie directed by the maker of the female- and fat-phobic Identity Thief), Baywatch is surprisingly without sexism or condescension: It’s equal-opportunity stupid.
Correction, May 25, 2017: This article originally said that this was the final action sequence. It was earlier in the film. (Return.)