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Dustin Putman

Baywatch  (2017)
2½ Stars
Directed by Seth Gordon.
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Zac Efron, Alexandra Daddario, Jon Bass, Kelly Rohrbach, Ilfenesh Hadera, Priyanka Chopra, Hannibal Burgess, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Rob Huebel, Amin Joseph, Jack Kesy, Oscar Nuñez, David Hasselhoff, Pamela Anderson.
2017 – 116 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for language throughout, crude sexual content, and graphic nudity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman for, May 25, 2017.
When is a comedy not terribly funny yet still recommendable? When said film does not live or die based on its jokes, and everything surrounding them remains easy, breezy and perpetually beguiling. So it goes with "Baywatch," a modern big-screen remake of the pleasantly cheesy 1989-2001 syndicated television series. The picture's tone is on-target, straddling the line between taking its premise seriously and comedically sending it up, but the R-rated gags could admittedly be a lot sharper and less basic.

The nighttime soap on which the movie is based was known for many things: its commonly swimsuit-clad cast, led by David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson; its irresistibly catchy theme song "I'm Always Here" by Jimi Jamison; melodramatic beach-set storylines featuring everything from near-drownings to shark attacks to sand grifters to even a serial killer; and, perhaps most notable of all, more slow-motion shots of the beautiful actors running on the beach than you could shake a surfboard at. Director Seth Gordon (2013's "Identity Thief") and writers Damian Shannon & Mark Swift (2009's "Friday the 13th") check these boxes, then proceed to make the project their own.

Mitch Buchannon (Dwayne Johnson) is head lifeguard and self-described lieutenant of Emerald Bay, holding tryouts each summer in search of the best new trainees to welcome to his team. This year's recruits: shamed two-time Olympic gold medalist Matt Brody (Zac Efron), a hotshot golden boy struggling to make a living after losing his lucrative endorsements; Summer Quinn (Alexandra Daddario), an aspiring marine biologist who rebuffs Matt's advances at every turn, and Ronnie Greenbaum (Jon Bass), a socially awkward nice guy who makes up for his comparatively unsculpted physique with a lot of heart and talent. As these new employees learn the day-to-day ropes of saving lives and keeping the beach safe, a new threat eventually comes into focus. Drugs have begun washing up on the shore, and Mitch and his team are determined to figure out from where they are coming. Their investigation leads them to Victoria Leeds (Priyanka Chopra), alluring owner of the exclusive Huntley Club, whose business may be a bit more nefarious than simple real estate.

The number of honest laughs "Baywatch" earns could likely be counted on one hand, but this proves to not be the detriment one would expect. Viewed as what it also is—a fleet-footed action-mystery, one part "Scooby-Doo" and another part "Charlie's Angels"—there are plenty of pleasures to be had. The overarching vibe is one of sultry, summery coolness, for two hours making the viewer long to be beside these beautiful, toned protagonists, living the high life on a salary decidedly larger than what the average lifeguard (or any lifeguard, for that matter) makes. Comedic ploys of the raunchy and gross-out variety—a run-in with bodily fluids in a morgue here, trapped beef and biscuits between the wooden slats of a chair there—would likely have felt dated fifteen years ago in the shadow of "American Pie." Even in these moments, however, the makers treat these situations and the characters with a modicum of believability and joviality. By never mugging for the camera or bringing a heavy hand to the proceedings, the film emits a good-time atmosphere of intrigue and even sweetness.

Dwayne Johnson (2017's "The Fate of the Furious") is clearly having a ball as Mitch, the BMOS—that is, Big Man on Sand—of Emerald Bay. As the oft-insubordinate Matt, Zac Efron (2016's "Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates") is up for anything but has gotten to the point where he is so in shape it has become distracting (one could lose count trying to tally his abs). Alexandra Daddario (2015's "San Andreas") brings a quick-witted independence to fellow new recruit Summer, wasting no time calling Matt out on his objectifying glances. As affable as these actors are, it is the supporting players who arguably steal the show. Jon Bass (2016's "Loving") is immensely likable as the socially awkward Ronnie, and newcomer Kelly Rohrbach is an effervescent find as friendly lifeguard CJ Parker; their good-natured relationship, burgeoning from colleagues to romance, is so winning and unexpected one wouldn't mind the two of them getting their own spin-off. Also making the most out of her role is Priyanka Chopra (TV's "Quantico") as the cutthroat Victoria Leeds; she may be playing someone who is unapologetically villainous, but Chopra ignites her with a fierce intelligence and wicked playfulness.

"Baywatch" is goofy but not dumb, bawdy but never mean. All things considered, it treats its standard yet diverting thriller plot with sincerity, and action sequences (including a fiery yacht rescue) are well-executed. It makes little to no sense why Matt would go undercover looking like a socialite at the Kentucky Derby when he and a chef-costumed Mitch infiltrate a staff kitchen, but in these instances it's best to just go with it. A tighter, punchier script could have only helped matters, but what is here is more than enough to kick off the summer movie season in slick, simmering, pretty, check-your-brain-at-the-door style. An eclectic soundtrack featuring The Beach Boys, The Commodores, The Bee Gees, Party Favor and A$AP Rocky contributes to the fun. If "Baywatch" is successful enough to warrant a sequel, let's hope the powers-that-be do not squander the obvious title for its follow-up: "Baywatch Nights."
© 2017 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman

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