It’s easy to dismiss it as 90s kitsch, but in its heyday Baywatch was the most popular show in the world. While modern reality shows rejoice at 10 million viewers, it’s estimated that over a billion people worldwide were watching the adventures of David Hasselhoff and his swimsuited team of heroes. Twenty years on, a new generation is here to save lives and run in slow motion. However, nearly 20 years after the show left our TV screens, can the format that gave the world Pamela Anderson adapt itself to more progressive times?
Dwayne Johnson steps into Hasselhoff’s trunks as Mitch Buchannon, lieutenant and leader of an elite group of lifeguards, who save lives and keep their bay safe for the public. Mitch’s devoted approach to his job is tested when he is forced to take on Matt Brody (Zac Efron), an arrogant, disgraced Olympic gold medallist swimmer who joins the team as a PR exercise. The pair’s differences must be put aside, however, when dead bodies start showing up on the beach, shining suspicion on a local businesswoman (Priyanka Chopra).
Director Seth Gordon (Horrible Bosses, Identity Thief) sets his stall out very early on in terms of establishing a tone. Eschewing the cheesy earnestness of the TV show, the format is crammed with naughty language and double entendres to make it more of an adult comedy.
While not an out-and-out spoof, the film rarely takes itself seriously, mixing elaborate, dramatic rescue scenes with bawdy slapstick (such as wannabe lifeguard Ronnie’s unfortunate incident with a deckchair). We’re also never far from a loving rib of the show’s premise, with jokes directed at series trademarks like slow-motion running and the oddity of crime-solving lifeguards. Many of the jokes miss the mark, but when they’re coming so fast, it’s easy to get swept away by the silliness.
With Johnson, the film has a star at the height of his powers. The seemingly boundless charisma and confidence of the actor makes him a perfect fit for the leader role. He also has a surprising knack for comedy, making his back-and-forth repartee with Efron one of the film’s strengths. Efron himself makes for a good counterbalance, a cocky foil to Johnson’s gung-ho heroism, and always game to make himself the butt of a joke (quite literally, in one quite graphic scene set in a morgue).
Of the rest of the team, Kelly Rohrbach surprises in Pamela Anderson’s role of CJ Parker, affectionately lampooning the character who set many teenage hearts aflutter, and Alexandra Daddario is a little bland but nonetheless necessary as Efron’s inevitable love interest. Bollywood actress Priyanka Chopra judges the mood perfectly, playing the villain with exactly the right amount of dramatic flair (“I’m not a Bond villain… yet” she teases during an interrogation).
The film’s biggest problem is getting round the biggest criticism of the show, namely no small amount of sexism. There’s no way you can make a Baywatch film without red swimsuits and glamorous actors, but the film does at least have a more equal opportunity approach. There are just as many lingering shots of the eternally shirtless Efron as there are of Rohrbach and Daddario, and the show’s reputation is cleverly satirised in a number of moments (most memorably Daddario chastising Efron for looking at her chest).
Brainless, broad, and a little bit crude, Baywatch nevertheless succeeds by putting its tongue firmly in its cheek and charming its way through. Cameos from show favourites will keep fans happy, while a whole new generation can now be introduced to the joys of very good-looking people running down a beach slowly.