Rating: C+, but in a fun way!
Synopsis: Dwayne Johnson is a lifeguard. That is all anyone needs to know.
Those of you looking for “more” than red bathing suits and pro wrestling, just stop right now. Just stop. Be honest with yourself. Baywatch was honest with you. From the moment the first trailer hit, you knew you were getting a Dwayne Johnson/Zac Efron vehicle of banter, thin character development, highly obvious plot, and lots of it. If you were looking for anything other than Johnson playing The Rock and calling Efron a Backstreet Boy, you had the wrong expectations.
The movie opens as Johnson is saving a windsurfer, who lost control of his sail. The word BAYWATCH bursts from the water behind him. He is literally carrying the movie. This is a real image five minutes in. Again, if you had higher expectations, just leave.
It might be the wrestling side of me, but I was perfectly fine with what Baywatch was offering. I mean, this movie is basically like an episode of Raw down to a T… and I’d take it over any of the Transformers movies or Fast and Furious sequels. I’d rather see Johnson spitting nicknames (that clip is just classic) and making dick jokes than a bunch of dark CGI McGuffins and people taking themselves way too seriously. Baywatch is highly unapologetic in what it is, and like wrestling (
most some wrestling)- a lot of it just works. It’s not about who wins at the end or the plot or who the bad guy (gal) is. It’s about the larger-than-life characters, relationships/how the characters work together, and the fun of getting from point A to point B.
Like a wrestling match, the plot is overly simple. Johnson plays a lifeguard who finds drugs washed up on his beach. He immediately suspects it’s the Bay’s new Paris Hilton, played by the gorgeous Priyanka Chopra. There are no other suspects and there are no twists. Along the way, he picks up Ryan Lochte-inspired Efron (who is surprisingly good), who he also immediately does not like. (Johnson is a simple man.) With his small team of mercenary lifeguards, they look to bring down Chopra with… teamwork! Yay! I could get into the finer details about the tag team/stable/valet team formations of the movie and how it is just like a two to three-month rivalry, but I will refrain. We get a little bit of everyone you would expect from an 80’s action movie- the hot novices, the hotter veterans, the chubby comic relief. Do they have any character development? Not so much as individuals, but it’s a lot of fun watching this dysfunctional family work together. Predictably, they all hate each other and get in each other’s way until it’s an hour or so in and it’s time to get the plot moving. Like I said, it’s basic.
The group dynamic starts off really strong but wavers a bit as it shifts about 75% of its focus to Johnson/Efron, 15% Efron/Alexandra Daddario, and the remaining 10% to CJ/Ronnie (Kelly Rohrbach/Jon Bass). Notice there are only two female names in there. I have a bit of a bone to pick with the movie on this because it really tries to champion women in good ways… but those two names serve primarily as love interests. This wouldn’t normally be an issue for me, but the movie makes a conscious decision in challenging sexism and so it stands out- if you’re going to address it, you need to stick to it.
There are a lot of lines that subvert the TV show’s focus on boobs and lots of passing comments about sexism. These are really surprisingly strong moments that I found almost cheer-worthy, especially given the expectations of the title. Chopra’s Victoria is a really powerful and ambitious business woman. When Efron calls Chopra crazy, she calmly replies with, “If I were a man, you’d call me driven.” When he checks out Daddario’s chest, she immediately jumps on his case about it and even does a sarcastic dance for him. We get just as many gratuitous shirtless Johnson/Efron shots as there are of ladies. And the women’s uniforms, namely the swimsuits, are actually functional. Each one is designed differently for each actress and there’s practicality in the necklines and padding. However, for all of its attempts to be more inclusive and to challenge the idea of women in red bathing suits, women take a really far backseat in moving the plot forward and serve as scene fillers. This stands out predominantly in a scene where Rob Huebel keeps saying “you guys” and apologizes to Daddario profusely for using a casual but exclusive statement. She replies, “That’s fine,” but the statement is incredibly reflective of what’s happening on screen. Huebel is talking strictly to Efron and Johnson and only addresses Daddario when saying “you guys”; in turn, she has few lines in the scene except “That’s fine.”
The TV form of Baywatch is most memorable for the women. Not the plots, not the Hoff, not the characters- it’s the image of women, which the movie tries to challenge in confronting commentary but fails to do so in its execution. The women are still background decoration. In the most action heavy moments, they show up at the end of it with a boat, ready to pull Johnson out of the water. Ilfenesh Hadera’s Stephanie, by far the most interesting and capable female protagonist, has the least amount of lines and gets absolutely no back story after a really good intro scene. She serves as Johnson’s right hand, but we never get an idea of her abilities or what she did to get there. Daddario gets a tad bit more of a character arc from rookie to lifeguard, but serves mainly as something for Efron to drool over which trivializes anything she gains in place of a love interest. I get that CJ is (duh) a callback to the pretty ladies of the show, but she’s nothing more than a cheerleader for Not Josh Gad. It’s not necessary to make two-thirds of your female roster love interests. I appreciate the attempts to challenge the norms and ideas of the show and hopefully, this just means that they have a stronger presence if a sequel happens. If it happens in wrestling, it can happen in the movies. (Yo, everyone and their mother needs to see the whole Sasha Banks/Bayley NXT Ironwoman match.)
Regardless of the above, I still enjoyed myself. Though the movie doesn’t really go places, it doesn’t feel toooooooo long because there is a lot of fun to be had along the way. There are a lot of scenes thrown in just for humor’s sake, to the point where it almost feels like too many- almost. Meaning, if Johnson isn’t in them, they feel long. He’s worth watching for his charisma and line delivery alone. If you like old school Rock, you will like this movie. (I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t like old school Rocky.) He even throws an eyebrow or two in there. And there is something really charming about Baywatch’s unapologetic, in-your-face nature. It’s not high art by any means and I don’t think I would watch it again, but I can’t deny I had a good time. AND I WON’T!