The 2017 remake of Baywatch has been widely panned, which is unusual, given that Seth Gordon’s version retains much of what made the original charming – the shameless taste for buxom, airbrushed bodies, the same sense that all the crimes in America are somehow centred on this one particular beach, and the absurd awareness that the methods employed by the Baywatch unit are frequently more dangerous or reckless than what they’re trying to combat. Even with those ingredients in place, Baywatch would make for a pretty good pastiche and period piece, but Gordon also manages to update its feel-good vibe in quite a compelling and powerful way as well, creating something like the cross-sectional and intersectional vision of American community that can make the best parts of the Fast and the Furious franchise so memorable, and The Rock’s role in them, in particular, so winning.
First and foremost, the informs the way Gordon handles the beaches itself, with the focus now shifting from sand dunes of LA County to Emerald Bay on the Florida coast, which is introduced by way of a calypsofied hip-hop credit sequence that seeps its way into every pore and corner of the film. In the original series, the beach had an uncanny porosity, often turning into an interface for every conceivable crime threatening America, and frequently feeling like the coal face of every moral panic facing America, even if the story arcs often dealt with them in a campy and ironised way. Twenty years later, however, it’s hard to outline the same porous and paranoid beach space without it feeling like a dated kind of racial panic, or immigrant panic, which is perhaps why the porosity here is deflected away from the beach’s real or imagined interfaces with other spaces, and instead turned into a principle of the beach itself. For all that the episode might open with Baywatch leader Mitch (The Rock) discovering a packet of cocaine washed up in the surf, the film, as a whole, is less interested in people trying to enter the beach or inhabit the beach or even claim the beach than the original series, with the real criminals turning out to be a massive real estate conglomerate who want privatise the beach to ensure this porosity can never occur again. Similarly, for all that Baywatch might now seem to shift to a part of America where beach boundaries are more an object of paranoia than ever (and certainly more than they ever were in the California of the original), the film responds by doubling down on that porosity, as if Florida’s fluid interfaces were a vision of how the rest of American actually ought to be.
Faced with that kind of policing of public space, Baywatch’s mission can’t be the same, with Mitch and his team having to actually define himself against the maintenance of borders that drove so much of the original series. To that end, all the porosity of the original is internalised by the beach landscape, which often plays as a kind of utopian Floridian or even West Coast beachscape from which all residual anxiety about immigration – especially wet immigration – has been entirely expunged, and in which racial diversity actually functions as a source of strength and solidarity, rather than paranoia and anxiety. The result is a high-octane, testosterone-soaked bromentum that is somehow also woke as well, and a perfect vehicle for The Rock, who is peculiarly capable of signifying both those registers at once. Even in his most stridently retro-macho vehicles, such as Michael Bay’s Pain and Gain, he exudes an absurdity that cuts against machismo as an inherently exclusive or competitive category, thanks in part to his ability to undercut his physical hyperbole with an always-surprising restraint, dexterity and even delicacy – a quality he shares with John Cena, and that hasn’t nailed quite so brilliantly or playfully since his franchise-topping role in Fast Five.
If Baywatch offers a utopian vision of woke machismo, then it’s partly because it offers a utopian vision of how all the energy, affect and good feeling of machismo might look if it was directed into community, rather than competitive masculinity. In that sense, it’s the very opposite of Pain and Gain – for all the brilliance of that film – and yet often recalls it in the way in which this pervasive swagger turns every scene into an incipient montage sequence. Of course, you could argue, as some critics have, that the film is almost nothing but a sustained montage sequence, or that it relies too heavily on montage sequences to get the plot going and build audience engagement. Yet that’s to ignore the originality of the feel-good atmosphere that propels it, as well as the dexterity with which Gordon places the film’s conversations on the precipice of montage without quite ever slipping into it, building a steadily mounting apprehension that also makes Baywatch surprisingly suspenseful, as well as strangely motivating and galvanising. At times – and, again, like Pain and Gain – it’s almost like watching a workout video, which is perhaps why it feels more continuous with The Rock’s WWE career – that same combination of physical supremacy and absurdity – than all but the earliest of his feature films, with the exception of his star turn in Fast Five.
What ensues, more generally, from that, is a kind of utopian vision of the teamship and team spirit that is such a affective feature of everyday American capitalism, from formal political discourse to the vagaries and small-scale attachments of social media. In an interesting counterpart to The Rock’s role in Ballers, Mitch plays like the world’s most amped-up football coach, except that Baywatch is more inclusive than any football team, since, as Mitch reminds them over and over again, the entire beach community is a part of the team, rather than teamship being purely the province of the surf life saving squad – a marked departure from the original series. For all the prestige of Baywatch, then, they’re never exclusive, with their energy percolating over into the rest of the beach as well, with the result that while everybody wants to be more of an insider, nobody feels quite like an outsider either. If you could harness the massive affective pull and collective address of the best NFL coaches and direct it towards a more democratic (and Democratic) project, it would probably look something like Baywatch does here – it’s almost a companion piece to Ballers in that respect – creating a contagious affectivity that is almost impossible to resist.
Among other things, that means that the ogling of women’s bodies that was such a big part of the original series – however campily – is now almost entirely absorbed into the pleasure of looking at, and communing with, every body in the film. At a certain level, the running joke of Baywatch is that the male bodies are now (and perhaps always were) more fetishized than the female bodies on the beach, with the introduction of Zac Efron as Mitch’s rival and protégé Matt Brody – a former Olympic swimmer and new kid on the block – making it almost impossible for Gordon to direct a scene that isn’t orchestrated, in some way, around the sublimity of perfectly proportioned male muscularity. Yet the film doesn’t merely “swap” female bodies for male bodies so much as shift its locus of libidinality to the fact of body language itself, and the ease with which every character – no matter their physical appearance, or conventional hotness – uses their body as a mode of communication and address. While there may not be much of a script at times, then, Baywatch doesn’t really need it, subsistsing more eloquently on body language than any other recent blockbuster, and allowing its cast to speak out with their bodies at every turn.
As might be expected, that’s particularly the case with The Rock and Efron, both of whom have faced critical moments in their career – The Rock towards the end of his WWE days, Efron in the later stages of his more adolescent phase – at which they had to consider what to do with bodies that were increasingly too adult or mature to deal with the parts they’d previously played. In the case of Efron, that transition is more recent, emergent and ongoing, which is perhaps why Baywatch feels so peculiarly suited to this particular moment in his career. Not unlike the transitions faced by adult films stars who have had to transition from a lither look to a more adult muscularity, Efron has spent the last couple of years brokering a new career path with a more muscular physiognomy, trying to figure out the best way to use this latest iteration of his body without being too beholden to it either, and without making it feel as if he is simply trying to amp up or compensate for the disappearance of his High School Musical self. Along with Bad Neighbours, Baywatch provides one of the best solutions to that bind, partly because of the way in which it opens up his body as an object of perusal to straight men as much as women and gay men, and to turn body language itself into a kind of universal and intersectional language. As a result, another of the film’s brilliances is the way it manages to capture all the homosocial ways in which dudes touch other dudes – and the extent to which men communicate with their bodies – without ever having to ironise it out of all possible homosexual connotation, but without needing to abruptly and anxiously articulate (and so foreclose) its queerness either.
Between all those different tendencies, then, Baywatch offers something like a utopian vision of the squad as a mobilizing affective principle of American culture, and the squad itself as a formation that is already intersectional – a kind of celebration of homosociality that somehow manages not to at the expense of women, gay men, or men of various races, but to actually embrace them, along with the homoeroticism that ultimately subtends and drives it. In a weird way, then, bromance fulfils a genuinely liberatory and reparative role in American culture here, functioning as an incitement to discourse rather than a form of homoerotic and economic oppression.. In one of the best scenes of the film, Mitch is forced off the beach and finds himself sellng short-term “data plans” in a phone store. At first, this seems like a decline narrative, and yet, in reality, the team rhetoric that pervades so much of the film is right at home in this environment, albeit in an impoverished way, which is presumably why David Hasselhoff chooses this exact moment to appear, in a vision, and encourage his protégé to get back out on the beach. Conversely, however, Mitch’s role at the beach isn’t any less precarious than this job, since, as he’s reminded so many times by so many people he doesn’t really have any jurisdiction beyond being a life guard – it’s the main joke of the whole film – as much as he functions as the manager of this community.
Between Mitch’s tenuous hold on the beach – tenuous, because it is based on charisma and nothing else – and the prospect of falling back upon this more banal retail job lies a precarity that drives the entire film, and that drives Mitch himself to increasingly hyperbolic gestures of machismo, but also increasingly reparative and inclusive ways of contouring that machismo. Whereas precarity is so often featured as a source of melancholy in American culture – or at least a source of melancholy and bittersweet comedy, as in The Office and Parks and Recreation – here it becomes the driving force for a particularly galvanized and energetic style of comedy, as well as a vision of what all the bland rhetorics of team spirit and team performance might do if they were genuinely liberated from the forces of capitalist and gender normativity that are frequently used to contain them. Only an absurdly fantastic space could achieve that, and yet that’s just what Baywatch provides – a space that runs the risk of not being taken seriously – as Mitch and his team somehow absurdly manage to use precarity against itself, as a way of building community in the most unlikely and implausible of scenarios. While we might be dealing with waves rather than cars, this is as much of a testament to the preciousness – and the precarity – of the American squad-community as the Fast and the Furious franchise, with the real criminal turning out to be a real estate developer who’s set on buying up the beachfront until there’s no remaining public access. Perhaps that’s why I found it so winning – a feel-good film in the best possible way – as well as one of the best performances from both The Rock and Efron in some time, even if it’s more likely to catalyse future acclaim that generate that acclaim at this moment.