In the 30-some-odd years since mining pop-culture nostalgia became a cash-dispensing machine for the movie industry, Hollywood has settled into some reliable formulas for bringing TV shows to the big screen. You can try to more-or-less duplicate the tone and vibe that made the original show successful (Miami Vice, Maverick). You can aim for an amped-up, blockbuster-y, super-size version of that original sensibility (Mission: Impossible, Charlie's Angels). Or you can poke fun at the entire premise of the original and make it into goofy satire (The Brady Bunch Movie, 21 Jump Street).
So with the arrival of Baywatch, the natural question is: Which one of these formulas does it embrace? The answer is: Yes. All of the above.
If you're an observer of the development process for franchise movies, that probably doesn't come as a shock. These things are often Frankensteined into existence out of sheer determination to get that brand name up on the screen, no matter how many writers the studio has to throw at it. In this case, between story credits and screenplay credits, they threw at least three teams of writers at this one. So if you wondered what would happen if you combined the styles of writers whose credits include Reno 911!, The Smurfs and Freddy vs. Jason, it looks a lot like this.
That doesn't mean it's not still sporadically entertaining, in large part due to sheer force of the personalities involved. Dwayne Johnson plays Mitch Buchannon, the alpha-male leader of the lifeguard squad at the beach community of Emerald Bay. He takes his job deadly seriously, and in turn he's revered by the grateful locals who build sand sculptures in honor of his exploits. It's a satisfying conceit turning Mitch into a de facto superhero, and it's only thanks to Johnson's own self-effacing charm that it comes off as amusing rather than obvious to take that approach to a guy who's actually built like a superhero.
Director Seth Gordon (Horrible Bosses) takes a similar winking approach to the rest of Mitch's crew, in a way that probably makes it feel a bit more like 21 Jump Street in its self-parody. Hotshot newcomer Matt Brody (Zac Efron, again, as in Neighbors, endearing as an oblivious himbo) is a disgraced former Olympic swimming gold medalist doing his community service; he's treated by Mitch as a pretty boy deserving a litany of dismissive insults, including at least one with a particular Efron connection. The trio of women—veterans CJ (Kelly Rohrbach) and Stephanie (Ilfenesh Hadera), and new recruit Summer (Alexandra Daddario)—race across the beach in their cleavage-baring swimsuits in a way that makes people wonder out loud if they're moving in slow motion. By the time Matt suggests that the criminal activity Mitch suspects is taking place sounds like "a really entertaining but far-fetched TV show"—plus the expected cameos by original cast members—the gag doesn't need that much underlining. We get it: Baywatch was silly, and everyone involved in making this movie knows it.
They also want to make it a broad raunchy comedy, and in that sense it's far less successful than Jump Street at creating a winking version of the source material for big kids. Gay-panic humor feels sadly obligatory, and the non-stop parade of f-bombs serves no purpose other than to announce "guess what we can say now." The weirdest bit involves a straight-up theft from There's Something About Mary where the Baywatch crew's most unlikely recruit, doughy Ronnie (Jon Bass, generally a scene-stealer), gets his genitalia caught in something, requiring an embarrassingly public rescue operation. It's not a good look when attempts at subversiveness come off as desperate.
Meanwhile, there's an actual sort-of plot going on, involving a drug-smuggling real-estate magnate (Priyanka Chopra), and a few actual rescues-at-sea for the lifeguards, much of which is played surprisingly straight. There's even an odd moment in which Matt reveals his troubled past, as though his needs-to-be-tamed hotshot character required motivation. Whenever Baywatch drifts into the realm of action-comedy that actually expects the action to matter, it loses much of the good will it has built up by emphasizing its ridiculousness. There's a place for goofy adaptations, and a place for straightforward adaptations, and a place for over-the-top adaptations. Ideally, those places should be in at least three different movies.