At the promotional screening of the new Baywatch movie I attended this week, the MC asked the crowd how many had ever watched an episode of the original TV series. In a theatre filled with several hundred people, perhaps a dozen hands were raised. If Baywatch has a cult following full of fans panting to catch up with a movie version of the cheesy 1990s lifeguard drama, they were not in attendance.
Still, it's not hard to guess where some of them are hiding – in the Hollywood production companies where this project originated. No doubt the long list of mostly male producers associated with the Baywatch movie includes several 40-something guys whose adolescent fantasies featured the sight of Pamela Anderson squeezed into her red one-piece.
And from such compelling artistic imperatives, a cultural monument is born. This version reinvents the muscle-bound Mitch for the new millennium. As sympathetically played by Dwayne Johnson – a.k.a. The Rock, the professional wrestler and action star of African-Canadian and Samoan heritage – the head lifeguard is now black and supernice and supercool.
But while this Mitch may vault the franchise forward, Baywatch has kept its voyeuristic appeal safely back in the Stone Age. Johnson's female co-stars – Kelly Rohrbach, Ilfenesh Hadera and Alexandra Daddario – are never seen without a yard of exposed cleavage. I'm not sure what is more unbelievable – that professional lifeguards execute multiple near-impossible rescues every day or that the female guards can do it without proper bras.
The initial plot is a formulaic new-kid-on-the-block story about a cocky, disgraced Olympian named Matt Brody (a suitably obnoxious Zac Efron) assuming he doesn't have to earn his spot on the squad. Meanwhile, the portly but sporting Ronnie Greenbaum – Jon Bass provides some moderate comic relief and several painful gags about his erections – reveals that a good attitude matters more than great set of pecs.
As that hazing-and-learning story rapidly exhausts itself, it's replaced by an equally formulaic thriller about an evil businesswoman (Priyanka Chopra) who is drug running in the bay. It's a plot that for some reason requires Efron to both handle a corpse's genitalia and appear in drag, albeit not simultaneously.
Okay, give Baywatch some points for casting a South Asian woman as the villain and some points for the occasional funny line – I just can't seem to remember any of them right now – but mainly this ridiculous thing lurches from genre to genre without director Seth Gordon ever establishing a credible threat.
The last thing that must be said about Baywatch – and this really is its saving grace – is that this movie never takes itself seriously. As it giggles away at its campy self, at least you can groan along with it.