As we continue to scavenge every last piece of pop culture like the vultures we are, Warner Bros. adds to the throwback pile with CHIPS – a re-whatever of a show that aired from 1977 – 1983 and is best (and probably only) known for making Erik Estrada a household name several decades ago. Its air dates (and lack of ongoing cultural relevance) actually places it well outside of our current obsession with late 80s/early 90s nostalgia, but 21 Jump Street did well. And Baywatch seems as though it could be popular. Will CHIPS continue the trend? Of course not.
Starring, written, and directed by Dax Shepard (Parenthood, Idiocracy), CHIPS is the type of action comedy that is misguided on almost every level. An obvious attempt to recapture the magic of Jump Street, this movie misses on virtually every point where that movie succeeded.
CHIPS, which stands for California Highway Patrol, stars Shepherd as Jon Baker, a former X-gamer whose body has been wrecked from years of EXTREME and, despite failing most of his aptitude tests, was made a rookie CHiP because the movie needs to happen. He is partnered with Ponch (Michael Peña), an FBI agent sent undercover to the CHiPs to investigate armored car robberies. Ponch also hits the “bad cop writing” trifecta of a) loose cannon, b) last straw, and c) dead partner.
What could happen with this crazy mishmash of personalities?!? Not much. Both Baker and Ponch are boobs, until they need to be smart or useful at which point they are experts. Baker is set up as an incompetent painkiller addict whose only skill is being amazing on the motorcycle, but he is probably the best investigator in the film. We’re told Ponch is such a great FBI agent that his bosses are willing to look past his loose cannon ways, except he does everything he can to call attention to himself as a fraud by not knowing his own backstory and cornering the villain (Vincent D’Onofrio who, between this and his appearance in Rings this year, what debts does he have?) and tells him his suspicions and plans with no evidence backing it up. But this type of inconsistency plagues the rest of the film. We’re supposed to feel something for Baker’s marriage breaking up. The villains are too consumed with rage and emotion (and stupid scheming) to be a comic foil. And last minute betrayals are played for shock value rather than laughs.
It’s one thing to use tropes like this if you’re going to make fun of or subvert them in some way, but that’s not what this movie does. It’s simply lazy. No joke takes an unexpected or surprising turn. More than a few scenes just awkwardly end. If a punchline can’t be guessed the instant the set up starts, it’s only because the film doesn’t bother to pay anything off. There’s a difference when the zaniness is cleverly done or amusing or exciting or anything other than the frustrating sense that nobody thought this out because the filmmakers didn’t care and didn’t think we’d care.
But complaining about plot in a movie like this can only go so far: it’s about the chemistry and the humor. And it fails on both accounts.
The relationship between Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum is what made Jump Street work. Even Let’s Be Cops was slightly elevated by the rapport between Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans Jr. In CHIPS, it doesn’t work at all. I generally think Peña is a terrific actor, but there is nothing between him and Shepard, and neither of the two leads have the comic intensity to pick up the slack for the other one. There are times when Shepherd sad sacks so much it’s like he’s trying out for Buster Keaton biopic.
Yet all of these issues pale in comparison to the humor/dialogue. Attempts at banter die quick, painful deaths as characters “yeah” or “bro” one another or scream until a scene awkwardly ends. Ponch’s character is supposed to be a sex addict, which leads to constant (and I mean constant) jokes about sex, sexting, masturbation, asses, ass eating, and penises. So many penis jokes. It’s so poorly done that it doesn’t even cross the line into vulgar, but rather stays entrenched in adolescent clumsiness.
All of that being said, if there’s one thing to give the movie credit for it’s actually the action sequences. Surprisingly (or not if anyone watched his far superior debut feature, Hit and Run), Shepard is quite adept at filming chase and fight sequences. He has a good eye for staging and pacing, some of his choices in car and motorcycle chases are creative and visually interesting, and there seems to be a fair amount of practical effects and stunt work involved. (There’s 102 stunt people for this movie listed on IMDB; Doctor Strange has 121.) Unfortunately, it’s in service to a bevy of dick jokes.
Verdict: 2 out of 5
Writer-director-star Dax Shepherd’s CHIPS re-whatever actually has some really decent action set pieces. Disappointingly, the film fails at dialogue, acting, chemistry, humor, and most everything else you can think of.