‘Baywatch’ (2017): Great job, lifeguards, but shouldn’t the cops be handling this?

“I thought we were lifeguards. Everything that you guys are talking about sounds like a really entertaining but far-fetched TV show.”

By Review Staff

And so it is, Baywatch fans, as character Matt Brody spells out exactly what you’re in for. Those of you hoping for a serious, big-budget adventure based on the classic ’90s television show will be largely entertained, though occasional silliness jolts you back to reality and reminds you that you’re watching…yes, Baywatch. But what Brody says is true, right?

Paramount Pictures goes back to the well to give fans and newbies alike a new take on the franchise once described as “the most watched television show in the world.” Starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Zac Efron, Alexandra Daddario, Kelly Rohrbach, Jon Bass, Ilfenesh Hadera, and Priyanka Chopra, Baywatch pieces together a patchwork of ideas that should satisfy moviegoers looking for big budget action-comedy thrills, while cameos from David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson aim to keep nostalgia seekers in their seats. Some juvenile giggles are thrown in off the cuff for the younger demo.

In 2017 Florida, god-like local-celebrity lifeguard Mitch (Dwayne Johnson, Fate of the Furious, The Other Guys) and lieutenants Stephanie (Ilfenesh Hadera, TV’s Billions, Chicago Fire) and C.J. (Kelly Rohrbach, TV’s Rizzoli & Isles, P.E.T. Squad Files) prepare for the annual lifeguard tryouts, where three lucky youngsters will get a shot at joining the Baywatch team. Winning the contest are surfer Summer (Alexandra Daddario, The Choice, San Andreas), chubby dork Ronnie (Jon Bass, The Newsroom, American Horror Story) and hot, cocky, drunk former Olympian Matt (Zac Efron, Dirty Grandpa, the High School Musical movies), who only makes the team when the unit is forced to take him in an effort to improve Baywatch’s image to city leaders intent on further cutting lifeguard funding.

But all is not well. During one of Mitch’s beach jogs, he finds a pouch of drugs washed ashore near a posh new beach-side restaurant owned by sexy businesswoman Victoria Leeds (Priyanka Chopra, TV’s Quantico). Bodies pile up as the newbies struggle to learn the ways of the Baywatch lifeguard, and Mitch and his team find themselves investigating a mystery right out of Scooby-Doo.

Why remake a TV show like Baywatch? Can you think of other ’90s fluff non-sci-fi syndicated TV that got the big screen reboot/revamp/revisit/parody? This type of drivel ruled the decade, with trashy, pulpy, super fun shows you could catch early on a Saturday afternoon, or on a late Sunday night. The difference was that Baywatch cut through the clutter and wound up appointment television for many. And by many, I mean the most-watched television show in the entire world, enough for 11 seasons (and a spinoff, the supernatural-tinged, X-Files-inspired Baywatch Nights, that aired for two).

But it wouldn’t be fair to all those other late-twentieth century syndicated offerings if we didn’t trace the origins of Baywatch. It didn’t start out as a syndicated fun-in-the-sun off-hours syndicated behemoth; it first aired as part of NBC’s 1989-1990 primetime lineup, premiering on September 22, 1989, following a successful pilot movie that aired on April 26 of that year.

Nearly three years after Knight Rider was canceled by NBC, David Hasselhoff struggled to find work. (He often told the story of how producers at the time wanted a “Hasselhoff type” for their upcoming television projects, but didn’t actually want Hasselhoff in their show.) So when the chance came to play Lt. Mitch Buchannon, a man in charge of a team of highly skilled, beautiful lifeguards who spent their days saving lives, fighting crime, and wearing skimpy attire on the sun-baked beaches of Los Angeles, it must have been a dream come true for the actor destined to become best known as playing sidekick to a talking car.

But it wasn’t to be. Baywatch lasted just one season before NBC pulled the plug, it’s last original episode airing April 6, 1990. It could have been Hasselhoff’s last chance as a television leading man, a relic of the past decade remembered only for the fun, but extremely ’80s, Knight Rider. Baywatch finished the season ranked 73rd out of 103 shows in that 1989-90 campaign, and to boot, GTG, the studio that produced Baywatch, went out of business, further cementing the program’s demise.

But the Hoff wasn’t about to be Hassled; with a producer’s spirit and a strong sense of what audiences wanted, he recruited original series creator/producers Michael Berk, Douglas Schwartz and Gregory J. Bonann and resurrected the hour-long drama for the syndication market. And the rest, as they say, is history. Baywatch scored enormous ratings airing on local channels in syndication, setting the stage for similar fare such as Pacific Blue on cable’s USA Network (to name one example), a Baywatch-inspired action-drama that many referred to as “Baywatch on Bikes.” Baywatch‘s unabashed exploiter underpinnings inspired other off-network shows to take similar chances with riskier fare, such as the action/adventure tales of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and its spinoff, Xena: Warrior Princess, both of which continued to feed viewers’ hunger for heroic men and women busting bad guys while wearing little clothing.

And exploitation here isn’t a bad word. Baywatch pulled in viewers with its ridiculous display of lifeguards that solved crimes as well as any cops on TV. In between the chases, explosions and rescues, viewers got a chance to know these beefcakes a little better, and were treated to character-driven drama right out the Beverly Hills 90210/Melrose Place playbook, with some daytime soap melodrama thrown in for good measure. All of it kept millions of viewers (billions?) coming back, week after week, for over a decade. But in the end, it was the most important aspect of the exploiter that worked to the show’s ultimate advantage: the eye candy. Mocked countless times in popular culture, even viewers who never caught an episode of Baywatch have seen it lampooned, celebrating the slow-mo running-on-the-beach shots of ’90s babes like Pamela Anderson, Nicole Eggert, Yasmine Bleeth and Carmen Electra, and hunks like Hasselhoff, Parker Stevenson, David Charvet, and David Chokachi.

Almost two decades have passed since Baywatch left the airwaves on May 14, 2001; the final two seasons saw production moved to Hawaii, where it was thus rechristened Baywatch: Hawaii those last two years. (FOX later aired a reunion movie in 2003, marking a return to broadcast television for the first time since the series left NBC in 1990.) With the understanding nowadays that anything Hollywood has ever done is considered a brand that must be exploited, the time was ripe to dust off the swim trunks and flotation devices, and bring Baywatch back, this time to the big screen.

Baywatch (the movie) isn’t a bad time if you set your expectations properly. Director Seth Gordon (Four Christmases, Horrible Bosses, Identity Thief) doesn’t seem to know, or care, just exactly what  Baywatch is (or was), so he throws in a little bit of everything. (Okay, maybe he knows exactly what it is!) There’s action, adventure, romance, double dealing, intrigue, explosions, and some wacky, silly, stupid comedy bits likely included to entice a younger generation of moviegoers not yet born when the original Baywatch was on the air.

It all adds up to an empty-calorie popcorn experience. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s clear the original team signed off on it: along with the cameos from Hasselhoff and Anderson, the film is produced by a team that includes original producers Berk, Schwartz and Bonann, along with Beau Flynn and led by Ivan Reitman.

Dwayne Johnson is fine in the Hasselhoff role of Mitch, playing to his pro wrestler-turned-actor strengths, which works well in mimicking Hasselhoff’s perceived wooden acting chops. Zac Efron as Matt (a role played by David Charvet in the original) is surprisingly effective as Efron plays the part of a fallen Olympic hopeful (and current alcoholic party animal) looking to right his ship and become the best lifeguard he can in order to truly, legitimately be part of the Baywatch team. Daddario, as Summer Quinn (played by Eggert in the original) and Rohrbach as C. J. Parker (Pamela Anderson’s character) are decent approximations of the originals, with both actresses bringing enough nuance to the characters that they don’t at all feel like copies. Jon Bass’s Ronnie is strictly for comic relief; you have to shake things up in politically correct 2017, and here we get an out-of-shape chubby dude running in slow-mo alongside his fellow perfect-bodied lifeguards. (Is it really PC, though, if most the movie is spent making fun of the lovable schlub?) It’s all fairly cute stuff, though, and younger folks will probably enjoy it.

Other minor characters from the original series pop up as well, such as “only-cop-you-ever-see” Garner Ellerbee, played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, and Rob Huebel as Don Thorpe, Mitch’s boss. Both characters receive revisions from their original incarnations, one slight, one major.

But stealing the show is ultra-gorgeous maneater Priyanka Chopra as vampy club owner Victoria Leeds. Chopra’s performance is somehow both over-the-top and believable as the crazy woman wreaking havoc on the beaches of Los Angeles. I could totally see her in a similar turn as an evil Bond girl, with her upper class sex-kitten vibe and those eye-popping gowns she wears, even in the thick of heavy action.

And that’s the main point of Baywatch. With the mixed genre bag, you get a steady dose of action, romance, and straight up comedy. This reviewer is an unabashed fan of the Baywatch TV series, it having originally aired during my high school and college years. At times I couldn’t tell if the film’s writers (screenwriters Damian Shannon and Mark Swift, from a story by Jay Scherick, David Ronn, Thomas Lennon, and Robert Ben Garant) were just poking fun at a brand that’s already had its day in the sun (a la Starsky & Hutch), or if they were attempting a true buddy-action flick with comedic elements. But who am I to complain? I chuckled at some of the stupidest bits.

Critics, of course, hated the movie, as evidenced by its low scores at review aggregator websites. But moviegoers, unsurprisingly, didn’t mind (audiences polled by CinemaScore gave it a B+ on average). The film grossed $18.5M in its opening weekend (with a five-day total of $27.7M), finishing third that week behind box office franchise heavyweights Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales ($62.2M) and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 ($19.9M).

In all likelihood, this will be the last we see of Baywatch, but Matt Brody’s quote at the beginning of this review rings true: The television show was a soapy drama with action elements, but because its “lifeguards-battling-evil-doers-while-saving-lives-and-finding-love” framework was so over the top, it was always fun to poke fun at it, even if we enjoyed every suntanned minute. The same can be said this movie. If we want a light adventure caper with pretty people in bikinis and big budget action sequences, and don’t mind poking fun at the series tropes we’re paying homage to, then we should be able to find something to enjoy when watching the breezy lifeguards of Baywatch.

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