'CHIPS': Film Review

Makes you long for the relative brilliance of the original TV show.
3/24/2017

Dax Shepard directs, writes and co-stars with Michael Pena in a tremendously lame big-screen adaptation of the hit television series.

The television series CHiPs (1977-1983) wasn’t exactly a classic, but it shines as a beacon of excellence compared to the big-screen redo that falls squarely in the camp of such similarly misbegotten efforts as Car 54, Where Are You? and Starsky & Hutch. A puerile combination of raunchy sex comedy and bland action vehicle, CHIPS will likely manage the difficult feat of simultaneously alienating fans of the original series and newcomers who will wonder why a buddy-cop comedy displays so much homosexual panic.

The blame can fairly be assigned to Dax Shepard, who wrote and directed the film as well as co-stars alongside a miscast Michael Pena. They respectively play Jon Baker and Frank "Ponch" Poncherello, the California Highway Patrol officers originally played by Larry Wilcox and Erik Estrada. Other than the character names and setting, that’s pretty much it in terms of recalling the television show, whereas the film, as anyone who’s seen the raunchy trailer knows, seems to have its head in its crotch.

In this version, Jon is a former star motorcycle rider now dealing with a severely battered body and a failed marriage to his ex-wife (Kristen Bell, Shepard’s real-life spouse). Desperate to win her back, he joins the CHP, becoming the oldest rookie in the process. Ponch, whose real name is Castillo, is a Miami FBI agent who goes undercover as Jon’s partner to investigate a multimillion-dollar robbery that appears to have been an inside job.

Many of the film’s attempts at humor derive from the two men’s contrasting personalities, with Jon being a sensitive type forever exploring his and everyone else’s feelings while Ponch is a sex-obsessed horndog who becomes paralyzed at the sight of women in yoga pants. The by-the-book Jon and reckless, irreverent Ponch get on each other's nerves at first, but after a few dangerous episodes they inevitably bond. Meanwhile, Ponch has to deal with his FBI boss (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), who, in typical cop movie fashion, does nothing but express indignation, and a former partner (Adam Brody), who naturally takes umbrage with Ponch’s habit of accidentally shooting him.

For reasons best known by his therapist, Shepard seems to think there’s a font of humor to be derived from the notion of men’s private parts getting up close and personal. More than one scene involves Ponch’s horror at the thought of accidentally coming into contact with his partner’s junk, which eventually happens in a ridiculously contrived scene in which he has to carry a naked, physically helpless Jon to a bathtub. This provides one of many opportunities for Shepard to show off his admirably well-toned body, although there are also plenty of female breasts on display to satisfy the straight-teen-male demographic. The two characters also argue incessantly over whether or not Ponch is homophobic, in a running gag that falls as flat as all the others, including Jon’s becoming nauseous upon entering people’s dwellings and his knee issues that often result in him flopping to the floor like a marionette whose strings have been cut.  

Shepard’s obvious love of motorcycles is evident throughout, with many elaborately staged action sequences shot in a gallery of Los Angeles locations showcasing gleaming vehicles and expert stunt driving. But despite all the effort involved, none of the chases or shoot-outs delivers any real thrills.

Desperate to push the envelope, the film includes such strained episodes as Jon and Ponch having an animated discussion about whether or not "ass-eating" is a common sexual practice, and the latter accidentally sexting with his middle-aged CHP supervisor (played by Jane Kaczmarek, who really deserves better).    

Shepard employs his trademark goofy comedic style to little effect while Pena mostly looks uncomfortable, whether he’s riding a motorcycle or pretending that he’s somehow irresistible to women. The actors never display any real chemistry, which is the kiss of death for a movie of this type. Among the wasted supporting players is Vincent D’Onofrio, who fails to make his stock villainous character remotely interesting.

The film features a cameo by an affable Erik Estrada, while Larry Wilcox dodged a bullet by not participating. The roster of executive producers includes Steven Mnuchin, now the Treasury secretary. If the Democrats had been armed with a copy of this movie during his confirmation hearings, things might have turned out much differently.   

Production company: Primate Pictures
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
Cast: Michael Pena, Dax Shepard, Vincent D’Onofrio, Rosa Salazar, Jessica McNamee, Adam Brody, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Richard T. Jones, Ryan Hansen, Jane Kaczmarek
Director-screenwriter: Dax Shepard
Producers: Andrew Panay, Ravi Mehta
Executive producers: Robert J. Dohrmann, Nate Tuck, Rick Rosner, Michael Pena, Dax Shepard, Steven Mnuchin
Director of photography: Mitchell Amundsen
Production designer: Maher Ahmad
Editor: Dan Lebental
Costume designer: Diane Crooke
Composer: Fil Eisler
Casting: Susie Farris

Rated R, 100 minutes

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