CHIPS (2017)

03/30/2017  By  Martin R. Schneider     No comments

I really care about Dax Shepard, and I am just as surprised to learn that as you are.

In 2012, Shepard wrote and directed a barely-seen independent action film called Hit & Run. It was the sort of movie you got when there was nothing left in the Redbox, back in that brief period when people go movies from Redboxes. But it was a fun movie, a movie committed to real stuntwork, and an impressive one for its shoestring budget, even if it was mostly an excuse for Shepard and his buddy Bradley Cooper to go out into the desert and do donuts in their cars. Hoping it would be similar to his previous output but with an actual budget, I was looking forward to Dax Shepard’s reboot of the 1970s cop drama CHiPS. What I got was a movie that allows Shepard plenty of room to play around, but still puts him on a leash where it counts.

The first thing you might notice about CHiPS is that it isn’t afraid or ashamed of it’s source material. Aside from an Erik Estrada cameo, there’s no winking at the camera or stunt casting or mean-spirited teasing, instead it’s committed to being a straightforward action comedy. Although the most obvious comparison is Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s Jump Street films, it still definitely falls closer to Hot Fuzz or Bad Boys than it does other reboots like Starsky & Hutch or The Dukes of Hazzard. But even playing it straight, Shepard finds a few ways to avoid cliches and change up some elements, beginning with the storyline.

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Shhhhhiiiiiiiiieeeeeeeeeeeettt…

CHiPS partners newly-appointed California Highway Patrol officer Jon Baker (Shepard) with the arrogant, hardened pro Francis “Ponch” Poncherello (the always-great Michael Peña) and lets them butt heads and male-bond as they patrol the streets of Los Angeles. It’s a standard “by-the-books” cop and “loose cannon” cop trope, but the twist is that each character has unique and original reasons for playing their individual role. Baker, a former BMX rider now attempting to patch up his failing marriage by pursuing a career in law enforcement, is on a probationary period and must maintain perfect performance standards to maintain his job. Meanwhile, Ponch is fine with breaking rules because he’s not really a CHP officer: He’s an FBI agent sent undercover to flush out dirty cops in the LA division. Impressed by Baker’s astute nature, Ponch lets him in on the case, and together the two close in on a crime ring led by Lt. Vic Brown (Vincent D’Onofrio).

Okay, so maybe I should have led with D’Onofrio’s presence in this film, because he brings in an unnatural amount of gravitas.

Like always, D’Onofrio doesn’t have a ton of screen time, but whenever he’s on, you can’t help but gravitate towards him. The dialogue even calls attention to this, as Ponch and Baker comment on how surprisingly “punk rock” his character is after a failed interrogation. D’Onofrio’s performance elevates those around him – you may not be afraid of Shepard and Peña’s characters getting hurt, but you will damn sure feel like D’Onofrio can hurt them. It’s also notable that Vic Brown’s motives for his crimes come from a surprisingly pure place. He’s trying to work up enough money to get his heroin-addict son out of Los Angeles and into a place he can comfortably detox. In fact, this whole movie is low-key about America’s opioid crisis, a thread which sadly doesn’t get enough exploration, but is nice to see recognized anyway.

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“Howdy boys, just here to steal the movie, don’t mind me.”

Peña and Shepard benefit greatly from D’Onofrio’s assist, but it’s a disservice to say that they need it. The pair are surprisingly lovable together, and they form a believable friendship and closeness which allows Shepard’s script to explore some themes about masculinity that aren’t often addressed. The two believably call each other out on everything from Ponch’s latent homophobia to Baker’s embarrassing obsession with the past, and plenty of frank discussion of bathroom habits. In one of the better moments of the film, Baker wakes up unable to move because of old chronic injuries from his BMX days, and must call Ponch for assistance. Shepard is willing to portray a vulnerability here that’s often unseen in these types of movies, sitting on the side of his bed, naked and helpless. Between this and Peña’s charm, the scene—which a lesser movie would have turned into a crass gay panic joke—is both legitimately heartfelt and funny. This alone makes CHiPS worth seeing.

However, it also doesn’t hurt that the movie looks great, and that Shepard, along with cinematographer and longtime Michael Bay collaborator Mitchell Amundsen, can put together an impressive action set piece. A large part of this is Shepard’s commitment to real stunts, and another chunk comes from willingness to let many elements plow together at once. The film’s longest action sequence features three people on Ducatis, an incoming SWAT Hummer, multiple police cruisers, a helicopter, and a Winnebago, all converging through the LA highways, parking garages, hills, staircases, and other terrain. Thanks to some competent editing and a lot of wide-shot cinematography, all of this Raising Arizona-style chaos works together seamlessly without costing the scene a sense of geography.

There is some fault in CHiPS, however. The film feels restrained in parts where it should go full-throttle, as though there are sections it wants to explore but time or studio interference won’t allow it. One example is the aforementioned opioid crisis theme, which gets really interesting when Baker’s constant pill-crunching from lingering injuries is juxtaposed next to the heroin addiction of Vic Brown’s son. This is brought up exactly once and never again. (In fact, the film ends on a weird joke about getting morphine from an ambulance). Another example is the moment when the audience realizes D’Onofrio’s character is about to go scorched-Earth on our heroes, only to have the momentum cut off abruptly. Adam Brody has a small part as Ponch’s former partner who is also working the case, but he disappears after the large action set. In fact, many of the masculinity call-outs I praised earlier get cast aside as the film rushes to the finish. This wouldn’t be so bad, except that they find plenty of time to repeat unfunny analingus jokes and unnecessarily expand the screentime of Shepard’s real-life wife Kristen Bell, who plays a one-note character here.

Chips-The-Movie-13In interviews, Dax Shepard has said that he wanted to make an action-comedy movie like Hit & Run, but with a larger budget, and hopefully Michael Peña. However, he found that the only way to get studios to trust him was to go through an existing IP. This led to the birth and eventual downfall of the CHiPS movie, currently floundering at the box office due to an audience justifiably sick and tired of reboot culture. There’s a lot to love about this movie, and the unlovable parts hint at a potential studio unwilling to fully hand over the reins of a potential crisis. Most of what’s here is the “Original Michael Peña Action Film” that Shepard wanted originally, but the parts that aren’t that drag down the rest. What could-have-been may have been better, but what we wound up with is pretty damn good, too.

 

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Dax Shepard Triple Play
Action and Stunts
Comedic Delivery
Script Strength
Unfortunate Restraint

About Martin R. Schneider

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Martin Schneider has opinions about a lot of things, and sometimes he writes them down. But he tries not to be a douchebag about it, though.

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