No one really asked for a “CHiPS” movie, right? As far as can be determined from the rowdy, laugh-challenged mess that is writer-director-star Dax Shepard’s badges-and-bikes action comedy, baked-in nostalgia for the cheesy ’70s-’80s slab of filler prime time is barely evident. After all, the presumed audience probably wasn’t born when Larry Wilcox and Erik Estrada retired their helmets, shades and Kawasakis.
Besides, the original TV show about California Highway Patrol studs was already its own light-entertainment parody of sorts, so apart from keeping the names Jon Baker and Ponch, you approach this “CHiPS” for what it is: one more R-rated pileup of buddy-and-body humor, slathered with chases and collisions for that empty-calorie sumpn’ extra. If you’re looking for a whip-smart, hilariously meta-rethink like the “21 Jump Street” movies, you’ve made a seriously wrong turn.
The series didn’t make it complicated: Wilcox’s Jon was the straight-arrow cop, and Estrada’s Ponch the rule-breaking renegade. In Shepard’s version, the vectors of conflict are many. His Jon is a bruised, pill-popping motocross champ whose glory days are behind him. In the interest of salvaging a dying marriage to a callous spouse (Shepard’s real-life wife Kristen Bell), he signs up for the CHP, with only his two-wheel skills saving him from training-school failure.
Concurrently, we meet Michael Peña’s brash Miami-based FBI undercover agent as he takes down a robbery gang, wounds his partner (Adam Brody) in the process, and can’t help but boast to the gang head that he slept with his girlfriend. His next assignment: investigating an armored-car heist in southern California that might point to a cluster of dirty CHP officers. It’s an internal affairs job that means suiting up in tight tan, taking the name Frank Poncherello, trying not to get distracted by LA’s lululemon-clad ladies, and earning earnest rookie Jon Baker as his partner.
The crooked-cops storyline stubbornly refuses to be interesting, and is even confusing apart from the perma-snarl that signals beefy Vincent D’Onofrio as the bad-cop ringleader.(I’m tempted to call him Paunch.) Meanwhile, Shepard and Peña play out their rudimentary comedic mismatch with a certain brio. Jon is ticket-crazy, hapless, sensitive to environmental odors, and analytically judgmental about his partner’s hard-edged swagger. Ponch, meanwhile, is short-tempered, addicted to sex, and treats Jon like a chump.
As their investigation yields both dividends and a handful of violent bonding moments through the streets of L.A., the pair figure out how to work together. You expected no less.
A movie like “CHiPS,” which is almost gleefully artless, is really structured around three elements in a furious loop: profane bickering that’s supposed to be funny, scenery intended to make L.A. look iconically cool, and action meant to keep you from checking your phone. On the first count, the humor is way more miss than hit, prone to the kind of raunch (analingus debates, homophobia teasing, who’s-hot-who’s-not) that feels available, not thought-out, and pain gags that don’t get funnier the more they’re repeated.
Buff buffoon Shepard and the authoritatively swaggering Peña are passably engaging comrades at best, but too often come off as hard-working hamsters on a buddy-comedy wheel than scene partners with real chemistry.
Around them, names and newcomers struggle for relevance, with Isiah Whitlock Jr.’s fuming FBI boss getting the most mileage out of a Cliché Hall of Fame role. Bell, a truly resourceful comic actor, is ill-served by her unoriginal caricature. David Koechner and Ed Begley Jr. get thankless one-and-done bits, while Jane Kazcmarek is saddled with a sexed-up CHP supervisor role that’s beneath her gifts. As for the uniformed hotties installed as romantic decoys for Jon and Ponch, Jessica McNamee and Rosa Salazar are gamely flirty but underused.
Regarding the locations and action, which covers a wide swath of sun-kissed L.A.’s hills, beachy expanse and concrete jungle, it’s difficult to appreciate the views when the chase editing is vogueishly choppy. (The stunt work, from traffic weaving to getting flattened by vehicles, is impressive, however, and Ducati will be pleased by the love its machines get.)
There’s little attempt in Shepard’s formless direction (his third go-round, after “Brother’s Justice” and the more widely-seen “Hit and Run”) to give true urban flavor to the action the way James Cameron utilized the L.A. river in “Terminator 2” or William Friedkin weaponized the freeways in “To Live and Die in L.A..” In that respect, the Los Angeles of the movie “CHiPS” is not unlike the weekly dose of 72-and-sunny that marked the show: just blah background.
By the time Erik Estrada makes his requisite cameo at the end, you’ll have forgotten you were even in the land of branded TV, because Shepard’s vigorous dreck is so indicative of how parched the modern action-comedy movie landscape has become.