Sometimes, films are unjustly judged. Other times, popular opinion needs to be challenged. Either way, this content will likely be unpopular.
Remaking a once-beloved franchise with a big budget and bankable stars might seem like a surefire recipe for success (just look at 21 Jump Street or even the first couple of Transformers movies), but it can also backfire. There’s an inherent risk in whichever approach is taken: staying too loyal to the source material will be dismissed as boring and unoriginal, but putting a new spin on the existing franchise can possibly alienate the intended core audience. It’s a difficult line to walk, and when it goes wrong, it seems to go very wrong. That’s where 2017’s Baywatch comes in.
Though the TV show is fondly remembered and nostalgia goggles allow us to ignore just how cheesy and ridiculous it was, there are no two ways about it: Baywatch is a relic. Its central premise is inherently flawed and it feels like an excuse to showcase the bodies of whichever actors were appearing in any given episode, and that’s not something that modern movie audiences are eager to overlook. That makes a movie reboot of the Baywatch franchise a tough sell right out of the gate, so it was always going to be up against it.
With Dwayne Johnson, Zac Efron, Alexandra Daddario, and Priyanka Chopra all lending a little celebrity to proceedings, Baywatch certainly has potential. With a handful of other faces fleshing out the film’s main cast (including cameos from David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson and a supporting role for Aquaman and Candyman actor Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), there’s a lot going for the film on paper. However, upon release, it was critically panned and underperformed at the box office, and any hope of a franchise was swiftly quashed.
Baywatch Didn’t Fumble Its Impossible Task, But It Didn’t Quite Shine Either
Though Baywatch was largely dismissed by critics as lacking the campy charm of the original series, it wasn’t devoid of merit. It takes a very similar approach to its source material as the infinitely more popular 21 Jump Street reboot: irreverently poking fun at the narrative flaws and elements that have aged poorly, all while attempting to keep the general spirit alive. For the most part, Baywatch actually succeeds at this, too. The film’s cast is appropriately chiseled, toned, and jiggling wherever one might hope to see any of those respective qualities, but it accesses that Baywatch trope with a certain amount of self-awareness that makes it feel just marginally less seedy than it would otherwise seem.
Perhaps Baywatch‘s biggest strength is its comedy. There are a number of moments of genuine comedic value, and although they’re a little lost in a formulaic plot and a wealth of unnecessary references, they still undeniably contribute to an overall sense of competence. It may not be a laugh riot, but its comedy adds a significant deal of entertainment value that is ultimately the reboot’s saving grace.
Unfortunately, both Efron and Johnson play the same character they always do. Johnson is the infallible but slightly naive hero, while Efron is the deeper and more thoughtful one. The parts were clearly written for the actors, and that doesn’t allow them any room to really shine, leaving the script feeling hollow and, at times, tedious.
Ultimately, Baywatch carries off its story well enough, but it’s just not overly memorable. Moments of abysmal CGI mar what could have been exciting rescue sequences, while the comedy is partially lost in its generic slog of a plot that feels lifted directly from a 25-year-old episode of the show. It seems that Baywatch just couldn’t quite strike the golden formula that makes these sorts of reboots work, an
d though it’s entertaining in places, it’s just not particularly impressive (or interesting).
Summary: Baywatch‘s best elements are ironically drowning in the weight of responsibility the film apparently feels to the source material. This is its biggest failing, too: it just can’t live up to the campy fun of the original show, and comes off as something that’s simply trying much too hard (and not really succeeding at all).
Highlight: Where Zac Efron’s comedic talents shine through, it’s clear that Baywatch was almost a much better film.