From the moment he first strides up to his sun-splashed lifeguard tower at the beginning of “Baywatch,” Dwayne Johnson’s Mitch Buchannon appears ready for action, and it’s a good thing he does. Not two minutes into this feature update of David Hasselhoff’s ’90s TV phenomenon, the sea breeze takes a turn, resulting in sudden peril for a clueless windsurfer.
As clear as this dramatic predicament is, it’s a little tricky to read exactly where the filmmakers are going with it all. Instinctively sensing what’s unfolding even before the airborne sailboarder plunges toward jagged rocks, our Hoffian hunk charges toward the danger, captured in a style that exponentially heightens the show’s ripped-and-glistening slo-mo iconography. The image is fun — and funny — because of how straightforwardly self-aware it is, an idealized glimpse of a real-life superhero. And then the Rock emerges with his save, a shot gilded with trappings so over-the-top, it’s more like his recent “Moana” demigod brought to live-action life.
So which is it, “Baywatch” team — winkingly sly, or flat-out silly? Director Seth Gordon (“Identity Thief”) and his committee of writers (a pair for the script, four more for the story) never do make up their mind. The result is a scattershot comedy that only intermittently nails either tone, finally just bogging down in flatly choreographed mayhem in the late going.
Johnson shares the oceanfront real estate with Zac Efron, seemingly always game for baring his six-pack, and doing it again here as attitudinal Olympic swimmer-turned-lifeguard trainee Matt Brody (David Charvet’s series stud, as fans will recall). The two clash over investigating a scheming, slinky local power broker (Priyanka Chopra, ABC’s “Quantico”). “Lieutenant” Mitch dives right into the case, while Brody — or “One Direction,” etc. to unimpressed Mitch — deadpans about how much the lifeguards’ blithe jurisdictional overstepping sounds like a far-fetched TV plot.
Joining the guys on beach patrol are sunny C.J. (Kelly Rohrbach, in Pamela Anderson’s star-making role); feisty trainee Summer (Alexandra Daddario, representin’ Nicole Eggert, if not her own “True Detective” credibility); and cool-headed Stephanie (Ilfenesh Hadera of “Billions,” as Alexandra Paul’s old character). They do what the movie asks of them — which, of course, is primarily about squeezing into those familiar shrink-wrapped red swimsuits. (The ladies’ end-credits collection of wedgie-picking outtakes sticks a bit of a pin, at least, in the franchise’s objectification balloon, and is as worthwhile as Hasselhoff’s requisite pop-ins.)
Then there’s Comedy Central product Jon Bass, who gets to play it broad as can be as unlikely lifeguard Ronnie, a pudgy sympathy recruit whose various sad-sack missteps — typically and semi-wittily involving his private parts — are the film’s other antithesis of sexy. Take these scenes together with another lowbrow flourish involving Johnson, Efron, and Daddario excruciatingly snooping around a morgue, and you’ll see this as one type of film. Catch the shrewder one-liners, or a fire-engulfed boat sequence and other surprisingly legit action over the first couple of acts, and a different movie comes across. “Baywatch” never can decide which one to save.
Directed by Seth Gordon. Written by Damian Shannon and Mark Swift. Starring Dwayne Johnson, Zac Efron, Alexandra Daddario, Kelly Rohrbach, Jon Bass. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 116 minutes. R (language throughout, crude sexual content, graphic nudity).Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.