Is there an actor around right now who’s better at playing dumb than Zac Efron? That’s what I wondered while watching Baywatch, and while it might sound like a backhanded compliment, I mean it in all sincerity. Ever since he did Hairspray 10 — I repeat, 10 — years ago, he’s played versions of the same cocky but redeemable hot dude with more muscles than brains. There’ve been some ill-advised detours into melodrama (Charlie St. Cloud, The Lucky One), but mostly he’s done this act through 17 Again and the two Neighbors films and Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates. Somehow, it hasn’t gotten old because he’s so good at taking his characters’ dimness in funny directions. In this action-comedy based on the 1990s TV show, he flies seamlessly through a nonsensical attempt at computer-speak and even squeezes laughs out of a botched attempt to put on a latex glove. I could watch him play these sweet himbos all day. I’m seriously in awe of his ability (and his abs and lats, too).
Here he plays Matt Brody, a disgraced Olympic champion swimmer who joins the lifeguard corps at a South Florida county beach, placed there against the wishes of Baywatch boss Mitch Buchannon (Dwayne Johnson) by a supervisor (Rob Huebel) seeking publicity. Mitch soon has bigger worries in the form of dead bodies and packets of drugs washing up on the beach, which he traces back to land developer and drug queenpin Victoria Leeds (Priyanka Chopra). He has his lifeguards investigate over the objections of Matt, who complains about the farfetchedness of the entire plot. As presumably no one did in the TV show, he asks, “Am I the only one who thinks this is clearly a matter for the police?” Yes, he is.
I must confess I never watched the TV show — I was a heterosexual male old enough to appreciate hot babes in bikinis when it aired, but I didn’t feel like wading through bad acting and drama to get to them. Fortunately, this movie replaces the bad acting with the skilled comic banter of Efron and Johnson, even if the script never settles what the deal is with Mitch, who keeps investigating crimes despite everyone outside of Baywatch telling him to leave it to the cops. Director Seth Gordon (Horrible Bosses) sets the tone of rhetorical excess early by showing us The Rock pulling a guy from the water while the movie’s logo rises up dramatically from the ocean and dolphins leap in unison. He engineers bigger action sequences than the TV show could do, and when Mitch fights a bad guy (Amin Joseph) in a baby’s room, the two combatants use the stuff in the room — baby powder, a mobile, a diaper bin — to fight.
Other actors chip in with comic business: Jon Bass as an out-of-shape lifeguard, Hannibal Buress as a tech nerd, and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as a condescending cop. I just wish they hadn’t all been men. The outtakes in the closing credits include an exchange between two women lifeguards (Alexandra Daddario and Kelly Rohrbach) about their bathing suits that points to the more interesting movie that Baywatch could have been if it had let the women be more than eye candy. Still, I laughed out loud enough times to recommend this retread.
Baywatch, Starring Dwayne Johnson and Zac Efron. Directed by Seth Gordon. Written by Damian Shannon and Mark Swift, based on the TV series created by Michael Berk, Douglas Schwartz, and Gregory J. Bonann. Rated R.