Friday, May 26, 2017

Baywatch: Hit the beach!

Baywatch (2017) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for relentless profanity, crude sexual content and graphic nudity

By Derrick Bang

Well, color me surprised.

Far from the train wreck I anticipated, Baywatch is an unexpectedly entertaining take on the popular 1989-01 television series, which became must-see TV throughout the world — in syndication — after being dumped by NBC following a single season. (And boy, I’ll bet somebody’s head rolled after that mistake.)

As Mitch (Dwayne Johnson, left) and Matt (Zac Efron) grow increasingly suspicious of
the activity on a fancy yacht, they wonder if this might have something to do with the
nefarious development scheme that threatens their beloved Emerald Bay.
Mind you, we’re not talking classic cinema here. But director Seth Gordon and his half dozen credited writers keep their tongues firmly in cheek, and the result is an engaging blend of snarky comedy, rat-a-tat repartee, improbable action, bonding melodrama and — as was the case with the TV show — the ripped abs and barely zippered pulchritude of unapologetic beefcake and cheesecake.

As guilty pleasures come, this one’s shamelessly enticing.

Credit where due, Dwayne Johnson has a lot to do with this film’s success. It’s not merely a matter of his herculean feats of brawn, which we never tire of watching; he also knows how to toss a glib one-liner. Johnson has undeniable charisma and presence, and enough acting chops to navigate this sort of material. In a word, he’s fun ... and so is this film.

Johnson stars as veteran lifeguard Mitch Buchannon, top dog of the team at Emerald Bay: a well-recognized figure admired by all, who arrives early every morning to patrol his busy stretch of beach. He’s assisted by Stephanie Holden (Ilfenesh Hadera), his regimented, by-the-book second in command; and CJ Parker (Kelly Rohrbach, a former Sports Illustrated swimsuit model), a free-spirited lifeguard who keeps the zipper low on her halter top, and has the uncanny ability to jog in slow motion (one of the film’s many running gags).

The summer season has just begun, which means it’s time for tryouts for three open spots on the Baywatch team. The hopefuls include the bookish, hyper-competent Summer Quinn (Alexandra Daddario); and the awkward, slightly pudgy but stubbornly determined Ronnie (Jon Bass), an Emerald Bay local taking his third stab at joining this elite squad.

Much to Mitch’s displeasure, he’s also forced to consider former Olympian Matt Brody (Zac Efron), a two-time gold medalist — in solo events — who blew off his teammates in the relay event. Matt has since devolved into a law-breaking, self-indulgent bad boy who still believes the world owes him a living, despite having become a social media joke.

Mitch doesn’t want anything to do with this arrogant loser, but his micro-managing boss (Rob Huebel) insists, believing that adding Matt to the team could be a public relations gold mine.

No surprise: Summer, Ronnie and (sigh) Matt win their place on the team. Cue the script’s first dramatic conflict, as no-nonsense Mitch constantly butts heads with the smug, insubordinate Matt, a dynamic that Johnson and Efron handle well. Another great running gag: Mitch’s refusal to call Matt by name, instead referring to him via a seemingly endless string of insultingly youthful, pop culture-oriented nicknames (one of which, a quick throwaway, is guaranteed to raise a smile).

The Mitch/Matt warfare soon takes a back seat to a much larger problem: Little packets of a new and potentially lethal designer drug have been washing up on the beach. Mitch is suspicious of the über-wealthy Victoria Leeds (Priyanka Chopra), owner of the Huntley Club, a high-end beach resort that has just opened at one end of Emerald Bay. Leeds, always accompanied by a pair of dangerous-looking thugs, has been quietly buying up beachfront property, with the clandestine assistance of a local city councilman (Oscar Nuñez) whom she has in her pocket.

Chopra is a hoot as the cheerfully evil Victoria, always seen in the most expensive couture designer clothes, and who appears on the beach only if she can stand on a little platform, thereby avoiding the sand. When she scoffs at Mitch’s distrust and says, “Goodness, I’m not a James Bond villain,” the line elicits a grin because that’s precisely what she is.

You’ll hear plenty of similar inside-joke dialog, as when Mitch explains the potential complexities of the Baywatch team’s job to a dubious Matt, by citing a trio of the original TV show’s more outlandish plots. We can’t help but chuckle.

You’ll also want to pay close attention to the fish tank in Mitch’s home.

All of this plays into the charm of Gordon’s film: It’s clear that everybody is having a great time, not taking themselves too seriously, and their enthusiasm is infectious. It’s easy to go along.

To a point.

The relentless F-bombs and verbal vulgarities permitted by the film’s R-rating are reasonably amusing, because they’re appropriate to Matt’s loutish personality, and the give-as-good-as-he-gets approach with which Mitch combats it. On the other hand, a needlessly explicit sequence in a morgue is the sort of over-the-top, tone-deaf misfire that we’d expect from Judd Apatow’s aggressively crude repertoire company: coarseness for the sheer sake of being distasteful, which brings the film to a screeching halt.

That issue aside, Gordon moves his film breezily along, wisely focusing on the various character dynamics. Efron is thoroughly convincing as the narcissistic Matt, stubbornly arrogant despite mounting evidence that he’s alienating everybody; we eagerly anticipate his epiphany, because it’s always satisfying to see bad boys get their comeuppance.

Daddario makes Summer spunky and resourceful, and it’s fun to watch her keep the cocky Matt at arm’s length. Rohrbach has a sparkling effervescence, and CJ’s sympathy toward Bass’ hapless Ronnie is quite sweet ... if frequently staged to maximize the latter’s embarrassment.

Hadera delivers the one truly “straight” character, with Stephanie often offering the pragmatic counsel that keeps everybody else (somewhat) grounded. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is a hoot as Sgt. Ellerbee, the region’s actual beach cop, constantly trying to maintain his authority in the face of Mitch’s boundary challenges.

Gordon and his scripters also find time to insert a couple of respectful cameo appearances. (What are the odds that two current high-profile films would high-five David Hasselhoff?)

The Florida and Georgia locations are undeniably gorgeous, and Gordon takes every opportunity to showcase scores of buff bods and scantily clad lovelies. The manner in which Mitch and his gang handle the crime-laden subplot is improbable stuff and nonsense, but everybody plays their roles with a wink and a nod, as if — even within their own universe — they’re fully aware of the core absurdities.

Too bad our real-world visits to the beach can’t be this much fun.

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