Reboots of Wonder Woman, Baywatch fail on big screen

Wonder Woman and Baywatch suffer from a lack of commitment to ideas, while War Machine successfully shows the wastes of fighting an unwinnable war

You would think that a comedy about a lifeguard team and a superhero movie would not have much in common, but they do.

Both feature women in key parts, both are reboots of properties that many people associate with television and both are aimed at audiences of both sexes.

And while they cannot be more different in strategy - one puts thongs and thighs front and centre and the other touts an iconic woman superhero - both suffer from the same problem: a lack of commitment in their ideas.

So the good news is that there is a Wonder Woman (PG, 141 minutes, opens today, 2.5/5 stars) at all, when every superheroine film has flopped (Catwoman, 2004; Elektra, 2005).

The bad news is that while the film-makers are clear about what makes her character so wonderful, they cannot spell out her womanhood without resorting to making her fall in love with a man and having her actions be somewhat directed by her feelings for him.

Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) is a princess on a hidden island populated solely by women, the Amazonians. Pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes his plane on the island, an act that propels her into the England and France of World War I, a conflict of such savagery that she vows to end it.

That set-up would seem perfect for a fish-out-of-water story about a woman plucked out of her gynocentric universe and dropped into English patriarchy. Oh, the drama that should ensue!

Nothing of the sort happens. Other than arching one perfect eyebrow, Diana takes the insults to her gender with puzzling passivity. Trevor is written anachronistically - he is protective of her, but displays none of the sexism that would be natural for a man of his time.

Director Patty Jenkins (woman serial killer biopic Monster, 2003) said she wanted to make a good action movie, not a feminist one, but this picture tries so hard to avoid making a statement that it becomes the elephant in the room.

There is a bit of role reversal, however, when Trevor's body becomes the object of Diana's gaze in one scene.

And Diana is headstrong, jumping into battle in spite of Trevor's warnings, but otherwise, let's just call this the Princess Diana Diaries - a woman warrior leaves home, changes into nice frocks, becomes the belle of the ball, wins the love of a handsome captain and kills lots of Huns.

Dwayne Johnson (above left) and Zac Efron in the Baywatch reboot, and Brad Pitt as a general in War Machine.
Dwayne Johnson (above left) and Zac Efron in the Baywatch reboot, and Brad Pitt as a general in War Machine. PHOTO: NETFLIX

If Wonder Woman is a trip to the museum, then Baywatch (M18, 116 minutes, opens tomorrow, 2.5/5 stars) must be dinner at Hooters. That this bit of beach-blanket bingo opens this week, against the relatively high-minded Wonder Woman, cannot be coincidence.

Surprisingly, this movie earns its M18 rating not with female nudity, but with bits usually kept under men's swim trunks, including a longish scene in which cocky recruit Matt (Zac Efron) fingers the wrong end of a corpse, looking for needle marks.

That gay-panic joke strikes an odd note, because the camera mostly ogles Efron's and Dwayne Johnson's bronzed torsos. Senior lifeguard Mitch (Johnson) evaluates Matt while at the same time battling drug dealers, one of whom might be the wealthy Victoria (a purring Priyanka Chopra, channelling a 1970s Bond villainess). He is flanked by colleagues Summer (Alexandra Daddario, playing the earnest-sultry one) and CJ (Kelly Rohrbach, the blonde surfer girl).

Director Seth Gordon (Horrible Bosses, 2011; Identity Thief, 2013) is the king of slapdash comedy - there is some sweetness, some vulgarity, a bit of improv weirdness and some nerd-gets-hot-girl wish fulfilment. You would think that by dint of trying all angles, at least one joke would land, but you would be wrong.

Dwayne Johnson and Zac Efron in the Baywatch reboot, and Brad Pitt (above) as a general in War Machine.
Dwayne Johnson and Zac Efron in the Baywatch reboot, and Brad Pitt (above) as a general in War Machine. PHOTO: UIP

The one, long, bitter joke in War Machine (NC16, 122 minutes, available on Netflix, 4/5 stars) is the war in Afghanistan, which, as one character describes, is what happens when one nation offers freedom to another by means of invasion and is surprised when the locals do not welcome them with open arms.

Brad Pitt is General McMahon, a fictionalised version of General Stanley McChrystal, the soldier whom then United States President Barack Obama put in charge of military operations in the Asian nation in 2009. His rise and fall is charted in the 2012 book The Operators, on which the screenplay is based.

There have been attempts at portraying the waste of life and resources that is the modern military trapped in an unwinnable war (Jarhead, 2005; The Men Who Stare At Goats, 2009), but this one works where others have failed.

Australian director and co-writer David Michod (crime saga Animal Kingdom, 2010; dystopian thriller The Rover, 2014) paints a portrait in which McMahon's strengths - intensity of purpose, sense of his destiny and his faith in his team - are also his weaknesses.

Michod wisely resists the urge to heighten the goofiness or the darkly psychological; he lets the absurdity of everyday White House politics speak for itself.

Ben Kingsley is hilarious as cynical then Afghan President Hamid Karzai trying to keep the general's gung-ho idealism in check, like a wise old cat reining in a rambunctious puppy.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 31, 2017, with the headline 'TV reboots fail on big screen'. Print Edition | Subscribe