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Don't hate them because they're beautiful: How 'Baywatch' owns its dumbness and rises from the surf

Those who are eager to slam Paramount’s new “Baywatch” movie are probably the same kind of haters who let the original SoCal-set television soap opera die an abysmal-ratings death upon its initial release in the fall of 1989, when NBC hastily canceled it after just one season.

Imagine: A ’90s without endless reruns of “Baywatch” beaming those jiggly, beachy heroics into homes across the world, teaching us all what it truly meant to protect life, always be ready and look good while rocking a high-cut red swimsuit and running in slow motion across the surf, a superhuman feat indeed.

Sure, it wasn’t Emmy material, but there was something there. One believer saw the light and resurrected the show in 1991 for a second season that took off in syndication: That was David Hasselhoff, the star-turned-executive producer who powered “Baywatch” to its beefy success. And it’s in the spirit of the Hoff (who blesses the film with an inspired cameo) that the “Baywatch” movie celebrates everything that was cheesy about the series, even as it gets hoisted by its own petard on the conventions of the studio comedy machine.

“Baywatch,” directed by Seth Gordon (“Horrible Bosses,” “Identity Thief”), is for those fans who couldn’t resist the show’s soapy charms. New ones who crave a summer blockbuster comedy might enjoy how much it not only owns its dumbness but hurtles itself all the way back around through a flurry of genitalia jokes and F-bombs to splash unapologetically in an R-rated surf of winking postmodernism, led by the charismatic Dwayne Johnson, Hollywood’s most unsinkable movie star.

He plays Lt. Mitch Buchannon, an ocean god in aqua socks whose mythical heroism is known far and wide across his sun-soaked domain — at least, throughout the stretch of beach that he and his squadron of scantily clad lifeguards patrol in the fictional Emerald Bay, the show’s Malibu setting transplanted to Miami.

Alas, the script by Damian Shannon and Mark Swift winks its way through a generic plot involving murders, cover-ups, a nefarious new drug flooding the community and a purring villainess in designer heels (played with honeyed venom by Priyanka Chopra) who’s strong-arming her way through the Bay’s beachfront property.

It’s filler right out of a lesser “Baywatch” episode, minus what made viewers care and the occasional diamond smuggler, killer sharks, plane crashes and pirates that kept the show spicy. And it gets increasingly clunky as our Scooby Gang in Speedos dives further into an unsanctioned investigation that has even the local police wondering: Do they know they’re just lifeguards?

Much is familiar about this new “Baywatch,” from the iconic red lifeguard skivvies to the overdramatic camera moves that Gordon uncannily apes from the show every time our heroes dive into the water to save innocent lives from danger. It also makes subtle stabs at progressiveness, like the diversity represented across its cast of heroes, cops (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and townsfolk (Hannibal Buress, Oscar Nuñez) — one of the unshowy ways this self-aware “Baywatch” acknowledges the difference 25 years makes in any nostalgic revisiting of our pop culture past.

Refreshingly, a number of strong, capable women comprise Mitch’s squad. Lt. Stephanie Holden, his No. 2, returns to the beach, this time played with steely strength by “Billions” actress Ilfenesh Hadera. Sports Illustrated model Kelly Rohrbach adds welcome verve and intelligence to the iconic Pamela Anderson role of C.J. Parker, the blond bombshell molded in such genetic perfection that, other characters marvel, it always looks like she’s moving in slo-mo.

Alexandra Daddario breathes feisty life into Summer Quinn, a seasoned surfer who excels at the annual tryouts and wins one of three spots on Mitch’s team, along with unlikely new lifeguard Ronnie (Jon Bass), a doughy nerd who has the hots for C.J.

Unfortunately, none of the women get much to do as “Baywatch” focuses on the testosterone-fueled friction between Mitch and Matt Brody, a disgraced ex-Olympic gold medalist who’s handed a spot on the team. Styled in the pretty-boy vein of Ryan Lochte, he’s played with committed himbo perfection by Zac Efron, the latest in his run of Humbled Douchebro roles.

In “Baywatch,” as in “Neighbors,” Efron shows he’s unafraid to poke fun at himself, submitting to the bulk of the script’s puerile indignities: Enduring a cadaver goo facial, playing up gay panic for laughs while touching another man’s scrotum, bearing the brunt of the Rock’s merciless banter. (Bass also enjoys an extended gag at the expense of his manhood.)

But while Efron gets a disproportionate amount of the film’s limited supply of character development — David Charvet never got this much sympathy over four seasons as Brody — he also serves a higher purpose: providing “Baywatch” its essential dose of man candy.

It’s while running an “American Ninja”-esque obstacle course shirtless to prove his lifeguarding chops that many of Efron’s talents take center stage. The onetime “High School Musical” star doesn't just have a six-pack; he somehow has all of the packs. There’s more definition in his rippled, bronzed physique than the dictionary. For every cleavage and butt shot ogling his female counterparts, “Baywatch” offers an admiring glimpse of Efron’s toned and tanned frame, and a joke at his expense.

It’s far from perfect, but there’s something there left to be mined from deep within these hallowed lifeguard towers.

One imagines a sequel built around lady power, manta ray attacks, perhaps a detective agency run by Steph, C.J. and Summer, or even a Hawaiian wedding. Dare a “Baywatch” diehard dream?

To read the article in Spanish, click here

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‘Baywatch’

Rating: R, for language throughout, crude sexual content, and graphic nudity

Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes

Playing: In general release

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jen.yamato@latimes.com

@jenyamato

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