Review For Dax Shepard's merrily idiotic 'CHIPS,' it's the low way or the highway

A subtle difference in capitalization — the only thing here that can be remotely described as subtle — separates “CHiPs” the amiable 1977-83 TV show from “CHIPS” the dunderheaded new buddy-cop movie starring Dax Shepard and Michael Peña.

But the all-caps title more or less captures the bigger, more blockheaded approach taken here by Shepard, who wrote and directed this merrily idiotic smash-up showcase in which cars crash into motorcycles, trucks plow into paparazzi and one guy’s face makes violent contact, as it must, with another guy’s junk.

That last gag is the sort of tiresome gay-panic gross-out moment that “CHIPS” tries to get away with by having its participants engage in deep discussions of what does and doesn’t constitute homophobia.

Serious philosophical questions are raised: Is discomfort the same thing as bigotry? Should an aversion to same-sex face-to-crotch proximity automatically be construed as homophobic? Can a movie be cheekily self-aware and still thoroughly terrible?

Without a doubt. And yet damned if “CHIPS” doesn’t somehow make the most of its own wink-wink awfulness. Its principal ambition — basically, to make movies like “The Dukes of Hazzard” and “Starsky & Hutch” look like rigorous masterworks of screen-to-screen adaptation by comparison — may be as shallow as the gutter. But from time to time, the movie does throw off its own crazy, moronic verve.

Shepard plays Jon Baker, a former X-Games motocross star who has joined the California Highway Patrol to impress and win back his ex-wife (Kristen Bell, Shepard’s real-life spouse). His partner (Peña) goes by the alias of Francis Llewellyn “Ponch” Poncherello, which really was the name of Erik Estrada’s character on the show; here, it’s practically a dead giveaway that he’s really an undercover FBI agent trying to find out which crooked CHP officers are behind a series of armored-truck heists.

The dynamic between these two khaki-uniformed dudes is of the familiar oil-and-water variety. Ponch is an insatiable sex fiend, Baker an obsessive monogamist. Ponch wants to keep his head down so he can get on with his investigation; Baker insists on earning his CHP stripes and doing everything by the book.

Ponch doesn’t want to be buddies; Baker can’t stop talking about his personal life and his weird hang-ups, like the smell of other people’s homes. (This character detail lays some crucial narrative groundwork for a discussion of proper sexual hygiene.) More important, from an action standpoint, Baker is an extremely skilled daredevil motorcycle racer, while Ponch can barely ride anything with wheels rather than legs.

This establishes a consistent pattern for the movie’s many high-speed chase sequences, most of which — whether they involve something as minor as a fender-bender or as excessively gruesome as a decapitation — are more nimbly shot and choreographed than they have any need to be.

I’m tempted to say I haven’t seen this city’s freeways, bridges and overall topography put to such busily inventive use since “La La Land,” but that was just five minutes ago (and that’s five minutes longer than you may remember “CHIPS”).

For Peña, this is his second buddy-cop role of the year, after the dirty detective he played in the British-made, New Mexico-set thriller-comedy “War on Everyone,” and he’s no less breezily irreverent here as a seasoned-but-sloppy investigator. Shepard, who brings to mind a less swattable Zach Braff, has his own offbeat charm: Touchingly open and earnest, but also physically tough and quick with a comeback, his Jon Baker is an eccentric comic creation, to say the least (and you sometimes wish he would).

The plot is needlessly convoluted and completely beside the point, the supporting cast a lazy grab bag of spare parts. Vincent D’Onofrio, as one of the CHP’s most imposing officers, shows up to bench press a few hundred pounds and warn Ponch and Baker not to get too nosy. Is he a good guy or a bad guy? (Is he played by Vincent D’Onofrio?)

You might wish the hard-working women of the CHP— this group includes Jane Kaczmarek, Maya Rudolph, Jessica McNamee and Rosa Salazar — had been given more to do than telegraph their varying degrees of emotional and sexual availability. You might also wish that Shepard, for all his cheerful indifference to the expectations of TV nostalgists, had done more than simply crank out “‘Dumb & Dumber’ on motorcycles,” in the expert formulation of Estrada’s former “CHiPs” costar, Larry Wilcox. TV’s Jon Baker hasn’t seen the movie yet but says he plans to rent it eventually. Sounds about right.

Michael Peña, left, as Ponch and Dax Shepard as Jon in "CHIPS." (Peter Iovino / Warner Bros.)

CHiPS movie savaged by critics: ‘A squalid, incoherent catastrophe’

WITH the average movie ticket costing around $20, no one wants to waste their cash on an absolute stinker.
And that’s exactly what CHiPS is according to the critics.

Due out in Australia on April 6, the movie is based on the 1970s TV show about two California Highway Patrol motorcycle officers and stars Michael Peña and Dax Shepard as the lead characters.

According to the Warner Bros’ synopsis: “Jon Baker (Dax Shepard) and Frank Ponch Poncherello (Michael Peña) have just joined the California Highway Patrol (CHP) in Los Angeles, but for very different reasons. Baker is a beaten-up former pro motorbiker trying to put his life and marriage back together. Poncherello is a cocky undercover Federal agent investigating a multi-million dollar heist that may be an inside job-inside the CHP.

“The inexperienced rookie and the hardened pro are teamed together, but clash more than click, so kickstarting a real partnership is easier said than done. But with Baker’s unique bike skills and Ponch’s street savvy it might just work ... if they don’t drive each other crazy first.”

That doesn’t sound too bad, right? Wrong.

Here’s just a taste of what the critics have had to say about CHiPS:
“How bad could CHiPS be? There are more references to anilingus than there are motorcycle chases.” — Blu-ray

“Often the film resorts to that unforgivable cheat move of having the supporting cast laugh at its leads’ antics on screen, in the hope of prompting us to do likewise. Instead I found myself curling over in such a paralysing cringe, my body had to be rolled out of the cinema afterwards like a dented bicycle wheel.” — The Telegraph

“What better way to celebrate such a quaint series than with a squalid, incoherent catastrophe that makes one yearn for such relatively harmless entertainments as The A Team film?” — Irish Times

“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 Wrap

“CHiPS is a miserable movie, an exercise in stupidity that takes whatever nostalgia one had for the late-1970s television series — this assumes anyone actually had nostalgia for it — and beats it to death on a bed of idiocy.” — Arizona Republic

“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.” — Hollywood Reporter

“This movie relies so heavily on tired gay panic tropes, it’s almost a relief when it changes tacks for an extended riff on how hilarious it is to make out with ugly chicks. Almost.” — A.V. Club

Still keen to spend your $20 on a ticket to CHiPS?

CHIPS: Why fans of the TV show hate the new movie version

Hardcore CHiPs fans hate it and the real California Highway Patrol seems not quite sure what to make of it.

But Larry Wilcox, who rode his motorcycle to everlasting fame in the old CHiPs TV series, says that for now, he'll give the benefit of the doubt to CHIPS, the forthcoming film based loosely — very loosely — on the show that made him and Erik Estrada two of the biggest stars of the 1970s and early '80s.

"I have not seen the film but the trailers looked like a soft-porn version of Dumb and Dumber," Wilcox said recently. "However, I hear the actors are both very talented and funny, so maybe it all works."

Fans of the original CHiPs, still widely seen in reruns and on DVD, are far less forgiving. They've been posting angry messages all over the internet since the first trailers for the R-rated action comedy emerged, calling it garbage and disrespectful to police officers everywhere.

In a lengthy "open letter" to Dax Shepard, Sue Walsh of New York accuses the film's writer, director and co-star of mocking the original show with a ridiculous remake filled with nudity, penis jokes and raunchy bathroom humour. (She left out big-breasted women but they're in there, too.)

"CHiPs was not just a '70s cop show. It wasn't Shakespeare, no, but it did and does mean a whole lot to a whole lot of people," said Walsh, who is organising a 40th anniversary reunion of the show this fall that most of the original cast is expected to attend.

CHP Sgt. Jon Baker (played by Wilcox) and his partner, Estrada's Officer Frank "Ponch' Poncherello, were hunky young straight-arrow cops cruising sun-splashed, surprisingly uncrowded LA freeways on their motorcycles, when not cracking jokes or flirting harmlessly with cute female sheriff's deputies.

​To the thump of a persistent disco track, Baker and Ponch kept busy rescuing people from cars, occasionally solving folks' personal problems and frequently chasing down miscreants before carting them off to jail without ever drawing their weapons.

In the film version, however, Shepard and Michael Mena's Baker and Ponch are anything but straight arrows. They accidentally destroy vehicles, cause fiery crashes, blow stuff up and sometimes shoot the wrong people.

"I understand it's a broad comedy," said Clader, adding she hasn't seen the film and won't offer an opinion on the trailer.

She said the CHP did grant the producers some technical assistance, for which the agency was reimbursed. But there's also this disclaimer at the beginning of CHIPS: "This film is not endorsed by the California Highway Patrol. At all."

And sharp-eyed fans will notice the title punctuation of CHIPS was changed from the original CHiPs, further distancing the film from the department.

Estrada, who has a cameo, did not respond to multiple phone and email messages. But in a video clip from a recent premiere, he described it as "a movie you have to view with your adult sense of humour".

As for Wilcox, he says he'll probably see it — eventually.

"I think I will wait for the video," he added.

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