Superheroes of beach and battlefield
Baywatch is a rare movie in one sense: it starts with a good plan, to spoof the 1980s and 90s television series on which it is based, and sticks to it. That’s in sharp contrast to the other movie reviewed this week, Wonder Woman, which is divided into incompatible parts.
Filmed mainly in Florida (the TV show was set in California), Baywatch opens with a spectacular scene in which the lead lifeguard, Mitch Buchannon (Dwayne Johnson), saves a young man who has fallen off his kiteboard.
As the muscular, grinning Mitch lopes back to shore, untouched by the waves, caring only for the life in his arms, the movie title comes up behind him in red capitals — BAYWATCH — and dolphins leap from behind it.
So we have a plan, and to the credit of the actors, screenwriters (Damian Shannon and Mark Swift) and director Seth Gordon ( Horrible Bosses), it is carried out with barely a hitch.
“Are you Batman?” a beachgoer asks Mitch as he adds another rescue to his career total of 500. “Sure, pal,’’ he replies, “just bigger ... and browner.’’ Johnson, who pro wrestled as The Rock, is reliable in action adventures such as the Fast & Furious franchise but he hits the spot as a comic actor ( Central Intelligence and the animated Moana are good recent examples).
Here he sees himself as a lifeguard superhero. More Superman than Batman if comparisons are to be made, as he’s not as dark as Bruce Wayne. The beach is “his” and all the lifeguards report to him. He’s a lieutenant, a rank that leads to amusing back-and-forths with the local police officer, who doesn’t think Spandex rules.
The police are important because Baywatch, as Mitch calls his elite team, is more involved in catching crooks than saving swimmers.
The plot is simple: Baywatch has room for three more lifeguards. One contender, there under a deal struck with the local authorities, is bad boy Olympic swimmer Matt Brody (Zac Efron, who seems to have cut his body fat ratio from 6 per cent to zero).
Matt won two gold medals but his celebrations resulted in the US failing in the relay. He’s known as the “vomit comet”. There are suggestions the character was inspired by American swimming star Ryan Lochte, who did something silly at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Perhaps, though the film was shot before those Games.
“There’s no ‘I’ in team,’’ Matt tells Mitch early on. Mitch refers to him as One Direction, Bieber and so on. The repartee between Johnson and Efron is full of zip and wit. They clearly enjoyed bouncing off each other, and it’s worth watching the outakes reel after the end credits for the uncut Rock (and Zac) show.
Mitch’s team is full of spunky, clever, brave women, naturally: CJ (Kelly Rohrbach), Stephanie (Ilfenesh Hadera) and Summer (Alexandra Daddario). They all add to the tongue-in-cheek humour. When one asks why their bikinis ride so far up their bottoms, CJ says with a smile, “It makes us faster in the water.”
The other main character is the pudgy (compared with Matt) Ronnie (Jon Bass), who is also trying out, and in love with CJ. The original CJ, Pamela Anderson, and the original Mitch, David Hasselhoff, make cameo appearances.
Swimmers may be calling for help, but Mitch has bigger fish to fry. There are packets of drugs washing up on the beach and, soon afterwards, dead bodies. His suspicions fall on property developer Victoria Leeds (Priyanka Chopra), who is also rather fetching.
The water scenes are beautiful to watch. Mitch pulling people from a flaming boat; Matt submerged in a cage. They are farfetched, but that’s the point.
There is foul language and body bit jokes, including perhaps the two funniest movie scenes I’ve seen involving a penis, one incorporating a beach chair, the other set in a morgue. Indeed, I wondered afterwards if I’d ever laughed at an onscreen penis before. Maybe Viggo Mortensen’s in Captain Fantastic.
“There is more to this job than just swimming,’’ Mitch tells Matt. There sure is, and while this Baywatch is perhaps a bit blokier than the TV show of teen memory, it’s well worth a dip. Wonder Woman is the fourth instalment in the DC Extended Universe, following Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad. The second movie, directed by Zack Snyder, is the best, with its existential struggle between two demoralised superheroes. There are lots more planned, including Justice League later this year and Aquaman next year, in which Nicole Kidman will make her DC debut as the fish-talker’s mother. This “universe” is the DC Comics answer to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, home to the X-Men and the Avengers. This rival universe has nine movies planned between now and the end of next year. My 12-year-old son thinks the two universes should fight to the death, even though he agrees with me that the Hulk (Marvel) would beat everyone, including his team-mates. Wonder Woman does Wonder Woman Baywatch have one absolute wonder: Israeli model and actress Gal Gadot, who started the role in Batman v Superman. There she was second fiddle to the two old sluggers. This time she is in the centre of the ring and she is a knockout. I know WW fans will say no one can come close to Lynda Carter in the 70s TV series, but I think Gadot does; and my viewing partner, who has followed this female superhero since her teens, agrees.
Wonder Woman aka Diana Prince is beautiful, super-smart and, in Gadot’s inhabitation, full of warmth and a charming part-naive, partsly humour. Some of her moments with spy-soldier Steve Trevor (Chris Pine, stamping his leading man credentials) are delightful, such as when she spots him having a shower. “What’s that?’’ she asks. Steve looks down, coy but not embarrassed by what’s on display ... until he realises she’s referring to his watch.
This film is directed by Patty Jenkins, who made the 2003 serial killer drama Monster, for which Charlize Theron won an Oscar. She’s the first female director to make a movie about a female superhero, but unfortunately that gender emphasis doesn’t quite come out on screen. Sure, Wonder Woman kicks male butt and talks about how love is more important than power, but she is thin in an emotional sense.
This film is set a century before Batman v Superman (Wonder Woman, an Amazonian demigod-warrior, is 5000 or so). We’re near the end of World War I. The Imperial War Cabinet is working on the armistice. The Germans know they have lost, except for mad, bad ones such as General Erich Ludendorff and his toxic officer Dr Maru. Wonder Woman, Steve and a gang of good-natured mercenaries head into the battlefields and stop Ludendorff, and thereby end the war. The main villain, though, is the war god Ares, Wonder Woman’s half-brother, who of course can assume human form. So maybe he and Ludendorff are one and the same.
There are some thrilling scenes, such as when Wonder Woman leads the men through no-man’s land to take on the German soldiers. The camerawork captures the muddy ordeal of trench warfare and the balletic, bellicose grace of Wonder Woman. (Gadot was a combat instructor during her stint in the Israeli army.)
If this intelligent, self-aware, humorous section was the whole film, it would be much better. It’s badly let down by the overlong, boring opening that explains Diana’s growth from girl to warrior and by the overlong, preposterous, sentimental conclusion in which she fights Ares, just like in any ordinary, CGI-overloaded, passionless action movie. It’s disappointing because Wonder Woman deserves better.
From left, Kelly Rohrbach, Alexandra Daddario, Ilfenesh Hadera, Dwayne Johnson, Zac Efron and Jon Bass in
Gal Gadot in