The early 1990s were glory days for the pubescent male. And, by extension, grand times for the stars of Baywatch: Pamela Anderson, with her awestruck army of admirers; David Hasselhoff, his career bounding off into a sunset of irony, lasting far longer than anyone could have imagined.
But no one expected, 25 years later, to be betting on Baywatch for a second time. When news of the film remake broke, predicting its tack seemed easy: red swimwear stretched over wanly-cast reprisals of characters that were pretty wan to start with; some skimpy something’s-rotten-in-the-state-of-California plotline; possibly Hoff and Pamela cameos, too. The new version has all these things, but the trailer was still an upbeat surprise. With The Rock and Zac Efron’s bromance game looking strong, this one – unlike the majority of remakes – had a visible pulse. And, all-importantly, a sense of self-awareness. “Everything you guys were talking about sounds like a really entertaining, but far-fetched TV show,” ironises Efron.
Coming clean on the dirty business is how Hollywood has remade its most discredited genre: the remake. “We’re staring into the abyss here,” one pencil-pusher in the teaser points out. “It’s up to us to restore the Baywatch brand.” Such faintly meta directives, pre-empting the audience’s misgivings, are following the model laid by another self-referential workover of a derelict property: 2012’s 21 Jump Street. There, the police chief swiftly laid the cards on the table: “We’re reviving a cancelled undercover police programme from the 80s and revamping it for modern times. You see, the guys in charge of this stuff lack creativity and are completely out of ideas, so all they do now is recycle shit from the past and expect us all not to notice.”
Well, yes. After The Avengers (not the Marvel one), The A-Team, Shaft, Clash of the Titans, Fame, Arthur, The Karate Kid, Get Carter, The Wicker Man, Total Recall, Alfie, The Italian Job and a gazillion other sorry revenants, who couldn’t fail to notice? This nineties and noughties deluge – when the need for “pre-awareness” pushed the remake factory into overdrive – was what 21 Jump Street was reacting to. “I thought that would be kind of a fun and risky thing to do because people so immediately assume that a remake, reboot, retelling, rehashing is gonna be awful,” writer Michael Bacall told GQ at the time. “And I get the same shivers too when I hear things like that announced.”
Both 21 Jump Street and its equally candid 2014 sequel made big money for comedies: $201m and $331m worldwide respectively. It’s clear, not just from Baywatch, that they have become the remake model to emulate. Apart from the slightly tragic air of gay panic, that’s the notable thing about the trailer for the new version of 70s/80s TV series CHiPs. The larky tone – with Michael Peña and Dax Shepherd’s motorcycle patrol cops dicking around as much as Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill – is a straight Jump Street crib.
Crucially, it looks like Peña is an FBI agent who assumes the identity of Frank “Ponch” Poncherello, Erik Estrada’s character from the TV series, for a case. This sense of play-acting, putting everything at a remove, is at the core of the new-school remake. It’s a way of acknowledging the audience’s own feelings about returning to and reinhabiting old favourites; the desire for them to be the same, but the likelihood that you have changed. 21 Jump Street wasn’t just funny; it was sharp on this cultural nostalgia, too. Tatum and Hill – unconvincing cops play-acting students – find winding the clock back to high school bewildering. The jock/nerd divide has splintered into a dozen different tribes, and neither are sure where they belong any more.
Bothering to detail millennial attitudes, rather than just indulging the Gen X viewpoint, showed that 21 Jump Street had an uncommon grasp of its demographics. It knew exactly where both parties stood in relation to the idea of the remake. An obligatory Johnny Depp cameo for any remaining fans of the original, but younger audiences were probably too tickled by watching Captain Jack Sparrow getting shot through the neck to wonder what he was doing there. Openly servicing the audience perspective began some time ago, as critic Tom Shone notes of Independence Day in his book Blockbuster: “‘This is so cool,’ murmurs one Los Angelino [in the film]. There would be someone like her in every disaster movie of the 90s – less a character, in fact, than a cheerleader for the film’s sense of fun, an ambassador for the audience’s sense of excitement.” But we have become unignorable in the social-media age; fully incorporated into the story in 21 Jump Street, this dramatisation of our cultural preferences, done with meme precision, has given the remake a new alibi.
There’s something celebratory about this tip of the hat to our collective pop-culture fixes. 21 Jump Street directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller have made that participatory ethic their calling card. Their near-masterpiece The Lego Movie paid tribute to the imaginative spadework done by little old us in any fictional endeavour; The Lego Batman Movie, if not quite as subtle, still has plenty of winks to our relationship with the franchise. “Sir, I have seen you go through similar phases in 2016 and 2012 and 2008 and 2005 and 1997 and 1995 and 1992 and 1989 and that weird one in 1966,” Alfred the butler tells the man in black.
Such in-jokey tactics are close to spoof, the lowest form of Hollywood recycling. There is definitely something spoofy about 21 Jump Street, in its derisory attachment to the original property and gags – like the climactic explosions that never come – about the action-movie form. But spoof believes in nothing, and the model of remake set down by the Jump Street films is too invested in its ideas about film-viewing and the audience to be entirely throwaway. It comes closer to the kind of postmodernism first imported into the mainstream by Last Action Hero and Scream. The latter deviously used horror connoisseurship to set up a regressive hall-of-mirrors effect inside the film: us watching the characters watching classic horror films. But the post-Jump Street remake makes a beeline outwards straight for us.
It’s even possible, for an instant, to believe that’s because it’s conspiring with us to change Hollywood. Joshing about the studios’ creative drought allows to us feel superior; to entertain the idea that the rules can be broken. Alongside the lampooning of redundant sequels in the Jump Street sequel is a running skit about Tatum’s reluctance to improvise. But much of the second instalment, Lord and Miller claim, came out of improvisation, and the film “emerged” in editing,as if even the on-brand Jump Street jokes about the roteness of sequels were too rote for them (they turned down directing initially). Quite radical, as it goes, for a modern studio film, but both films still couch their subversion within the confines of the traditional action-comedy. By the time 22 Jump Street is spitballing its own sequels over the end credits, it’s clear any radicalism is running down a blind alley.
The chances of the CHiPs or Baywatch remakes amplifying this subversion are as likely as the latter having the Rock decapitate Hasselhoff mid-movie, or featuring an unattractive principal actor. But the new self-referential remake still poses Hollywood an important question about its creative commitment. Yes, it’s always been a remake kind of town, as the three versions of Ben-Hur, spanning nearly a century, demonstrate. Or the five Count of Monte Cristos, or the seven Three Musketeers. But most of these regurgitations arrived at wider intervals, during times less media-saturated than ours. It’s hard to escape the feeling that every recognisable brand has been plundered; the bottom of the remake barrel definitively scraped. Even the big franchises like Marvel are, if not remaking exactly, then cloning a formula from one film to the next. Or like Star Wars, Terminator and Jurassic Park, cannibalising their own heritage in quasi-remakes like the most recent instalments.
In other words, remaking the remake, making it self-conscious, is surely the last throw of the dice. What will there be left for the next generation of Hollywood directors to build on? All respect to Schmidt and Jenko, as well as the new Mitch Buchannon, CJ Parker, Jon Baker and Ponch (remember them?), it’s doubtful there’s enough emotional substance there for a third go-around. Over the last decade, Hollywood has faced the biggest question marks over its future since the first time TV overshadowed it in the 50s. Getting back on top might mean ditching remake’s first syllable and remembering the important part.
CHiPs is released on 24 March; Baywatch on 2 June