Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Movie Review: Baywatch (2017)

If you’ve been following my other reviews this year, you’ll notice that I haven’t made it a secret about how surprising a lot of this year’s films have been so far. I honestly don’t know if it’s directly because of my own expectations or if a lot of filmmakers this year have been getting better at left-hooking the audience, but I am getting less and less confident about films actually matching up with general audience anticipation. And yet, even with that in mind, this is the one film that I was looking forward to the least out of everything expected to come out this year. What’s more, as each piece of marketing revealed more about it, the worse it ended up looking. It’s quite a feat to take the teaser poster, with just about the least subtle dick joke I’ve seen in quite a while, and somehow go further downhill from there but that’s how this thing looks. By this point, I think my expectations for this are at their absolute lowest; unless we end up with another perplexingly offensive offering, which isn’t exactly out of the realm of possibility, there’s no way this could be as all-time awful as I’m expecting it to be. Could it? This is Baywatch.

The plot: Lifeguard Mitch Buchanan (Dwayne Johnson), the leader of a team that patrols the beaches for trouble, is exasperated by the ego of Matt Brody (Zac Efron), a prospective new lifeguard. However, it seems that there are bigger fish to fry as, along with a series of dead bodies washing up on their shore, Mitch and his team find themselves embroiled in a conspiracy with local property tycoon Victoria Leeds (Priyanka Chopra) in the centre of it all.

For a cast that features two of the bigger ‘impossible to hate’ actors working today, it’s nice to see that reputation is still intact. Johnson brings his endless charisma to the party, managing to deliver all of his dialogue (for good and for lame) with just the right tone to make it stick. Efron ends up with another surprisingly layered character, easily the most complex of the entire cast, and he hits cocky and needing to be brought down a notch without coming across as a massive tool in the process. Well, at least not to the point where he’s annoying to watch. Alexandria Daddario is alright but doesn’t really get a whole lot to do, same with Kelly Rohrbach, and it isn’t helped that the whole “my eyes are up here” routine from the trailer is funnier than I think even the writers intended it to be; her soul-stealing eyes are still in effect, making the need to purposely avert attention to them a little pointless. Chopra is pretty good as our villain, nailing the cheesiness and ‘not even trying to hide it’ aspects of her misdeeds quite well. Jon Bass as another prospective lifeguard, while being victim to probably one of the least effective bits of gross-out humour I’m likely to see all year, fits nicely alongside the rest of the cast and, dare I say it, makes it believable that he would be brought onto the team in the first place. For the token nerd, that’s quite a feat. Hannibal Buress, while in a small role, easily gets some of the biggest early laughs with his very matter-of-fact punchlines. David Hasselhoff appears briefly as what is essentially Johnson’s spirit animal, and barely registers because of it, and Pam Anderson’s entire role in the film is as a slow-mo joke. Again, barely registers.

I’m not going to pretend that I’ve seen any real amount of the original show, but given its memetic place in 80’s and 90’s nostalgia, I think most people have a fair idea of what should be expected: Slow-mo, a cameo or two from the original show and some other not-so-hidden nods to the source material, all of which the film carries on in a way that doesn’t so much nudge the fourth wall as rub its taint on the glass. Same goes for the High School Musical reference made at Brody, come to think of it. Anyway, while the surface references are done easily enough (considering they are pretty damn difficult to mess up, even in films like this), it actually feels pretty in spirit of the original show at its core. From my understanding, the original show’s main kitsch was how it made lifeguarding on a beach look like the most overblown thing imaginable, carried out by Hasselhoff and co. who all took their jobs dead bloody seriously and didn’t look all that clued-in on how silly everything is. This film manages to keep up that idea, with “Lt.” Buchanan going above his station and essentially playing cop. Of course, cop show clichés have been a font for comedy throughout most of these TV show remakes so I can’t really tell if it’s part of the joke or if it’s just lifted from its contemporaries. Still, when wielded by this cast, it’s at least serviceable in terms of humourous contrast.

Something else that feels inspired by its small-screen origins is how episodic a lot of the scenes are, while still being tied together with the big conspiracy involving drug dealing and property dealings. This, however, doesn’t turn all that well and honestly, it’s mainly down to the film’s sense of humour. Now, as has been showcased in my reviews before, I can be a bit of a stickler when it comes to modern comedies; I get that gross-out humour is for the 2010’s what camp was for the 80’s, but that still doesn’t make me immediately think that just showing a dick on screen is instant comedy. Add to that the cross-dressing gag, which has never been funny and is only slightly less so nowadays, the dead man’s liquid fat gag from the trailers, and of course the ‘gets genitals stuck in the cracks of a wooden beach chair’ gag, and the word ‘gag’ ends up referring less to the type of joke and more a recommendation of a way to get whoever wrote these jokes to shut the hell up. To make things weirder is that, in-between the squick, there’s actual decent comedy and drama going on. A lot of the comedy just comes from the banter between characters, which comes across a lot more natural than it probably has any right to, and the drama is generated by Buchanan’s dedication to his job and Brody’s character arc about his former fame and learning to be a team player. Yeah, it’s pretty clichéd, but it’s handled well and actually lands on its feet. When both of these sides come together, it results in the kind of film you would expect from a production with this many writers and producers attached to it. Seriously, the intersection of Ivan Reitman, Eli “Ooh, faced!” Roth, the creators of Reno 911 and the writing duo who gave us Freddy Vs. Jason comes a long way to explaining why this feels so disjointed overall.

And speaking of things that don’t fit well together, let’s get into some technical shit that I doubt most readers even care about but, too bad, these things really bugged the hell out of me. Like, for starters, the effects work. This film has been conceptually tossed around a lot over the last few years, which would explain the myriad of names attached to it behind the scenes, and the funding for this thing seems to have been spread pretty thin. Frankly, this is the only explanation I can think of for why the green-screening here is as Asylum-level as it is. The practical effects are decent and there’s at least some creativity put into the variety of action beats, but as soon as it gets to the fire and fireworks specifically, it starts to fall apart. The sequence where Mitch and co. need to rescue people from a burning boat at sea has amateur-level effects that are legitimately painful to look at, not helped by how it looks like no human hands were anywhere near the thing on camera. And as if that wasn’t distracting enough, then the soundtrack will do the rest. Composer Christopher Lennertz (et al., because even the music room is overcrowded for this thing) has done a lot of good as a music maker, and has been attached to a lot of these sorts of up-close-and-personal comedies. I bring all this up because he seriously phoned it in on this one. Sure, he provides some nice eclectic chase music to the proceedings, but his licensed music picks really highlight why I specify good use of soundtrack in my reviews as opposed to just a good soundtrack. No matter how much I love Run The Jewels, there’s only so many songs you can pepper into the same production (often reusing certain songs) before it starts to feel like you’re just letting Pandora do your work for you. It’s not quite as bad as something like The Great Gatsby in terms of terrible use of terrific music, but it’s not every day that a film’s soundtrack genuinely bugs me like this.

All in all, while definitely having its irritations, this is honestly a pretty decent flick. Stable action, a capable cast that delivers on their occasionally weak material, and while the SFX and soundtrack do stick out like very wobbly splinters, the overall approach to adapting an 80’s kitschy TV show is a lot stronger than I’m used to seeing of late. Honestly, just to see Johnson and Efron continue their streaks of giving their best even when surrounded by less-than-ideal material, I’d say that it’s worth checking out. It’s better than Alien: Covenant, whose high points may far surpass anything this film can offer but this film’s setbacks don’t do nearly as much damage as Covenant’s did in the long run. However, since this still can be rather frustrating, it falls short of Going In Style, which was undoubtedly a lot simpler but succeeded more at what it was trying to do in the process.

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