We first see Dwayne Johnson leap into action to rescue a parasailer from a watery demise.
This heroic lifeguard races along the beach, dives into the ocean and then shifts to slow motion, as if the movie has suddenly turned into a cologne commercial.
In his brawny, tattooed glory, Johnson looks as otherworldly as the demigod he voiced in “Moana” while emerging with an injured victim in his arms. A tidal wave rolls in behind him that transforms into the “Baywatch” logo, accentuated by high-fiving dolphins.
The subtlety continues.
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“Are you Batman?” asks a beachgoer.
“Sure,” he concedes. “Just bigger … and browner.”
Too bad Johnson’s formidable powers don’t extend to resuscitating the rest of “Baywatch,” a film soon revealed to be dead on arrival. The movie almost makes the dippy TV show it is based on seem respectable by comparison.
Johnson plays Mitch, leader of the athletic lifeguarding crew that patrols fictitious Emerald Bay. He holds an open tryout to fill three summer vacancies and supplement his core team of CJ (Kelly Rohrbach) and Stephanie (Ilfenesh Hadera).
This attracts the comely and competent Summer (Alexandra Daddario) and the nerdy and horny Ronnie (Jon Bass). The latter is obsessed with CJ, a hardbody blonde he envisions as always running in slo-mo.
Mitch’s bosses also want him to hire Matt (Zac Efron), a two-time Olympic medalist who torpedoed his swimming career with party boy shenanigans. Matt is brimming with confidence, and abs, but lacking in team skills. Additionally, he’s a total jerkwad.
When drugs wash up on the beach, Mitch puts the squad on the case, despite their lack of actual law enforcement authority. The trail leads to a ruthless real estate mogul (Priyanka Chopra) who suspects the snooping lifeguards could pose a problem.
Matt notes their risky exploits resemble “an entertaining but far-fetched TV show.”
The “Baywatch” name is best known to a younger generation as the jiggly bikini series that Chandler and Joey drool over on “Friends.” But for a long stretch during its 1989 to 2001 run, the show starring David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson reigned as one of the world’s most popular programs, airing in 148 countries.
This big-screen adaptation hopes to capitalize on the same irreverent spin that converted “21 Jump Street” and its sequel into huge hits. Director Seth Gordon (“Horrible Bosses”) gleefully pursues a hard R rating, dialing up the profanity, graphic imagery and awkward male nudity. Yet the tone proves all wrong, further fracturing the focus. The film fluctuates between parody, tribute, straight-up reboot, coming-of-age drama, gross-out comedy and surreal commentary on blockbusters in general.
All this might be forgivable if the action scenes thrilled or the jokes landed. Aside from a few decent sight gags and a clever bit where Mitch battles a fleeing henchman hiding in a little girl’s bedroom, leading the combatants to attack each other with the dainty décor at hand, the dated humor falls flat.
During a chase scene, Mitch yells at pretty boy Matt, “Who taught you how to drive? Stevie (expletive) Wonder?”
Speaking of expletives …
Johnson has fashioned a terrific career out of combining his imposing physique with light comedy and even musicals. But one thing that has tied his performances together is they are all family-friendly. He’s a multigenerational talent who appeals to youngsters and seniors alike.
Thus it’s disconcerting to watch him not only drop numerous (and pointless) F-bombs but also play a “good guy” who is so mean-spirited. Borderline abusive.
Ultimately, “Baywatch” drowns at the most rudimentary levels. Even the post-credit outtakes aren’t funny.
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
Rated R for language throughout, crude sexual content, graphic nudity.