Dax Shepard chose to make CHiPs because he knew – sadly – that relying on an established property would be an easier sell to major studios than an original, reasonably budgeted vehicular action-comedy. With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that Shepard’s big screen adaptation of the once popular television series resembles the show in name(s) and premise alone. The resulting creation is a raunchy, often humorous buddy cop comedy that fans of the brand will likely loathe in a way similar to fans of other kinda-sorta, but not really adaptations, such as Starsky and Hutch or the disastrous Car 54, Where Are You?.
Shepard writes, directs, and stars alongside Michael Peña as Jon Baker and Frank “Ponch” Poncherel, a team of California Highway Patrolman who only recently joined the force. Baker is a former extreme sports star whose injuries destroyed his career and marriage. Ponch (Peña) is a cocky, sex-obsessed undercover FBI agent sent cross-country to sniff out a crew of rogue officers believed to be connected to a recent rash of armored car robberies. The pair could not be more different, but after being forced to work together they slowly begin to form a bond while uncovering clues to help them crack the case.
You can probably guess almost every beat of CHiPs based on the above description. The friction that initially exists between Baker and Ponch inevitably gives away to mutual respect and wise-cracking friendship that allows them to better do their jobs. The bad guys, lead admirably by Vincent D’Onofrio, are secondary to the evolution of the relationship between the movie’s leads. In fact, almost everything in CHiPs takes a backseat to the camaraderie of Baker and Ponch, for better and worse.
Shepard’s directing chops are best observed in moments of action, which thankfully happen every ten to fifteen minutes like clockwork. His embrace of Go Pros and similarly small cameras helps to create a visceral experience that keeps things thrilling in between more story driven moments. This is one area where many action-comedies tend to suffer, but Shepard has has mastered the tonal shift as if he were switching gears on one of the many vehicles shown on screen.
Perhaps the biggest fault with CHiPs is just how little faith it has in the elements the made the original franchise a hit. The cops on the show never fired their weapons, yet Baker and Ponch get in several shootouts throughout the film. The cops on the show never address issues of homophobia or sex addiction, but the film uses these things as punchlines and character traits. There is nothing here befitting the CHiPs brand, yet the film only exists because it can use that brand. It’s all quite confusing, and the debate of whether or not you need to know something about the series going in alone could be enough to drive away consumers.
That said, those in need of a quick chuckle fix could do a lot worse than CHiPs. Jokes come fast and furious, and though their quality ranges from legitimately hilarious to painfully flat there is enough of them that the good ultimately outweighs the bad. With another film, the franchise could possibly reach the comedic heights of more successful television adaptations, like the ultra-meta 21 Jump Street series, but it seems unlikely sequels will happen.