‘Baywatch’ Review: Dwayne Johnson and Zac Efron Sink in the Shallows

Torn between being a hard-R comedy, a coming-of-age story or a straight-up reboot, this film fails at all three

We have come to think of Dwayne Johnson — former pro wrestler, action star with a sense of humor, Disney animated singer, just-kidding-maybe presidential candidate and self-described “franchise Viagra” — as the movie star this generations needs, and for the most part, he is. But as the saying goes, he can heal the sick but not raise the dead.

And make no mistake: “Baywatch” is dead on arrival.

A summer franchise movie that can’t decide if it wants to be a hard-R bawdy comedy, a d-bag-comes-of-age tale or a fairly unironic reboot of the glossy TV show (which ran from 1989-2001), “Baywatch” fails at all three, despite the best efforts of the perennially game Johnson and Zac Efron, two performers who have subverted audiences’ assumptions about their limitations and have emerged as solid comic actors. It’s too bad they’re saddled with a film that somehow manages to fail to live up to the low expectations one would have of a movie called “Baywatch.”

Efron plays Olympic swimmer Matt Brody — and if any movie shouldn’t be allowed to whip out a “Jaws” reference, it’s this one — a two-time gold medalist who’s become a national joke (think Ryan Lochte); he excelled on his own but got drunk the night before the relay and barfed in the pool. Out of options, he’s accepted the invitation of Captain Thorpe (Rob Huebel) to become a lifeguard at Emerald Bay.

But Brody won’t be assigned his whistle until he meets the approval of Baywatch chief Mitch Buchannon (Johnson); the two have the standard brash-rookie-loner vs. seasoned-team-player conflicts, but Brody does make the team, alongside the very competent Summer (Alexandra Daddario, who played Johnson’s daughter in “San Andreas”) and the nerdy Ronnie (Jon Bass), who has a seemingly hopeless crush on blonde lifeguard CJ (Kelly Rohrbach).

Meanwhile, the wealthy and treacherous Victoria (Priyanka Chopra, “Quantico”) is buying up all the bayside property with nefarious intent, and Buchannon is out to stop her drug-smuggling operations. Rescues, redemptions, romances and slo-mo running toward the camera ensue.

Oh, that any of this were any fun at all. Director Seth Gordon once made a charming documentary (“The King of Kong,” referenced here via Ronny’s Donkey Kong T-shirt) before Hollywood plugged him into a string of lifeless and mostly laugh-less comedies: “Four Christmases,” “Horrible Bosses,” “Identity Thief,” and now “Baywatch.” What do these movies have in common? For one thing, Gordon hasn’t written any of them. For another, they’re all scattershot and generic, edging close to being outrageous or controversial or blistering and dark, but all choosing instead to creep back to formulaic blandness by the third act. The filmmaker’s role in all of them seems to be more about directing traffic than creating a consistent tone.

Six people collaborated on a screenplay that offers less than one laugh per writer, and the tone shifts are jarring; one minute Buchannon is forcing Brody to check a corpse’s very intimate areas for evidence of heroin injection — a slapstick set-up from which Gordon mines no comedy — and then the next we’re supposed to care about Brody growing up or about the drug subplot.

The cast feels mostly adrift — Daddario, Rohrbach and the striking Ilfenesh Hadera (“Billions”) get very little to do as the female lifeguards, while Bass comes off mostly as a very poor man’s Jonah Hill. And if the talented Chopra also has comic chops, they remain untapped here; she’s playing a character who describes herself as aspiring to being a 007 villain, but the actress finds no fun in Victoria’s wickedness. Of course, if professional funny people like Huebel and Hannibal Buress can’t get any laughs here either, then the problems here run far deeper.

If nothing else, “Baywatch,” the TV series, exported the bright California sunshine to a world market; “Baywatch,” the movie, on the other hand, often looks sickly, whether from an excess of obvious green-screen or the hazy cinematography by Eric Steelberg (“Men, Women & Children”); Florida beaches haven’t looked this overcast since “From Justin to Kelly.”

Let us hope that “CHIPS” and “Baywatch” will teach studios that the lightning of “21 Jump Street” is unlikely to strike twice, and that turning a dopey old TV action show into a comedy is much easier conceived than done. Even if you put Dwayne Johnson in trunks.

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