Based on the popular television series about heroic, hard-bodied lifeguards patrolling the beaches of Southern California, Baywatch is in many ways the perfect vehicle for Dwayne Johnson, a.k.a. The Rock. Brimming with brawny, alpha-male charisma, Johnson has built a career on winking machismo, embodying the ideals of hyper-masculinity—confidence, virility, a Herculean physique—while simultaneously exaggerating them to the point of cartoonish self-parody. He’s a comic-book superhero come to life, a Silver Age Superman with a tribal tattoo who turns his own invincibility into a kind of running joke.
Director Seth Gordon’s film is a self-aware caricature of the original’s softcore soap operatics that both embraces and satirizes its ludicrous plotting and jiggly cheesecake, pitting Johnson’s über-competent head lifeguard Mitch Buchannon against reckless new recruit Matt Brody, gamely played by Zac Efron with casual self-assurance. Baywatch essentially follows the template set down by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s self-reflexive 21 Jump Street adaptation, involving its protagonists in a generic drug-smuggling investigation that serves as little more than an opportunity to parody the thin plots, hammy melodrama, and genre clichés of its source material.
While that film was mostly able to sustain its satirical silliness through to the end, Baywatch runs out of steam significantly sooner, hammering the same handful of gags about slow-motion effects and the absurdity of lifeguards investigating criminal conspiracies into the ground with little variety or escalation. Gordon, whose mainstream comedies haven’t lived up to the promise of his lovably eccentric documentary The King of Kong, lacks Lord and Miller’s whippy comic timing, and his action sequences are choppy and slapdash. One fight scene set in a nursery room, which features a bottle of milk and a Diaper Genie used as weapons, could have been an action-comedy highpoint, but instead it’s so sloppily cut together that it barely even registers.
If the film remains watchable despite its comedic deficiencies, that’s largely thanks to the bristly chemistry between its two stars. Johnson approaches Efron with the loving prankishness of an older brother making sure his cocksure younger sibling knows his place, and Efron leans into being the butt of the joke with admirable conviction—as when Matt is tricked into inspecting a dead man’s taint. Unfortunately, the rest of the actors, with the exception of Jon Bass as a dorky trainee, are given considerably less to do. Even comedy ringers like Hannibal Buress and Rob Huebel make little impact here.
Saddled with shallow characters defined mostly in relation to their male love interests, the female cast members fare especially poorly, given little chance to contribute in any way other than by displaying their cleavage. This gender disparity extends even to the cameos: David Hasselhoff gets a humorous pep talk that allows him to poke fun at Mitch, the role he originated, and receives prime real estate during the end-credits blooper reel; Pamela Anderson, meanwhile, doesn’t speak a single line during her one appearance. In terms of body objectification, Baywatch is an equal-opportunity exploiter, leering over Efron’s rippling abs just as much as Kelly Rohrbach’s buxom chest, but when it comes to comedy, the film is a total boys’ club.