There are some stories that deserve to be told and retold – handed down through generation after generation, from campfire tales through to the era of TV and cinema and far beyond. Whether they’re related in the pages of a book or projected on a movie screen, these stories speak to the essence of what makes us human: our histories, our friendships, our fears and desires. CHiPs, based on the 70s TV show about two motorcycle cops in California, is not one of those stories.
Michael Peña stars as a trigger-happy FBI agent from Miami who, on the trail of a group of bank robbers with a hidden connection to the Los Angeles police, goes undercover as Officer Frank Poncherello at the California Highway Patrol Division (or CHiPs). There, he meets Officer Jon Baker (Dax Shepard), a former motorcycle racing champ who’s only joined the force as part of a flailing attempt to win back the affections of his wife, Karen (Kristen Bell, Shepard’s real-life spouse).
Odd-couple antics ensue, as Baker and Poncherello (or ‘Ponch’, or whatever) edge closer to the corrupt cop they’re after – Kurtz, played by a tired-looking Vincent D’Onofrio. There’s much nudity, plenty of swearing, and – for what’s meant to be a relatively light comedy – a surprising amount of gore.
Shepard, who made an early mark with the reality series Punk’d before graduating to the movies, exercises an auteur’s control over CHiPs. As well as its co-star, he’s the writer, director, co-producer and, unless our eyes are deceiving us, he’s had a hand in co-ordinating the stunts, too. The latter aspect which proves to be the movie’s strongest suit; the writing, on the other hand – that’s another story.
There’s an early exchange between Baker – the honest yet wet-behind-the-ears rookie cop – and a younger female officer, Ava (Rosa Salazar), who’s signposted as his love interest. From memory, it goes something like this:
Ava: That’s a nice bike.
Baker: Oh, you like it?
Ava: Yeah, it’s cool.
Ava: Yeah. I like bikes.
It’s one of those scenes where you can’t tell whether it’s improvised or scripted; whether the conversation is really going anywhere, or whether the actors don’t realise the camera’s running. CHiPs is full of these moments: loose, rambling dialogue scenes where characters choose a subject, riff on it for three or four minutes, and hope they’ll strike comedy gold. These topics include: how often Baker uses the bathroom, Ponch’s sex addiction, lycra leggings, dating apps, Baker’s crotch, Baker’s conniving wife, one of Ponch’s sex partners, motorcycle engines, and Baker’s crotch again.
In its R-rated combo of violence, bromance, improv and celebrity cameos, CHiPs‘ template is plainly 21 Jump Street, which proved to be a big hit for Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill. But where that adaptation of an old TV show was enlivened by plenty of self-awareness and good-natured chemistry between its leads, CHiPs is pretty much levelled by its wildly misjudged tone and sleazy humour.
Put it this way: having a character comment on the film’s homophobic jokes doesn’t make the homophobia any less unpleasant. Having one or two female characters demonstrate their ability with a machine gun doesn’t make the camera’s ogling of said characters’ backsides any less crass.
Shepard and Peña aren’t necessarily terrible as the leading couple, and there’s a scene where we learn that Shepard’s character has so many injuries from riding motorcycles that his limbs barely work when it rains. It’s a moment that really humanises the character, and there’s a shiny-eyed earnestness to Baker that makes you think, just for a moment, that CHiPs might find its feet as a scattershot comedy. But then Ponch shows up, the conversation turns to Baker’s crotch again, and that hope is but a memory.
Shepard’s fixation on his motor-mouthed duo is such that his supporting actors barely get a look in. Such comedy stalwarts as David Koechner and Maya Rudolph get precisely one, awkwardly unfunny scene each. Kristen Bell has three, and they’re all identical – she shows up, says something nasty and exits stage right. D’Onofrio, who’s far too good for this nonsense, should make for a fine villain, but his big entrance is horribly botched (the dialogue doesn’t even match his jaw movements), and he spends the rest of the film looking a bit lost.
There’s one scene, however, where the actor suddenly bursts into life. Peña and Shepard show up at a gym and start on one of their free-associative rambles while D’Onofrio tries to lift some weights. D’Onofrio rears up to his full height, marches towards the pair, his fists clenched. A black cloud crosses D’Onofrio’s eyes, the film’s glib artifice disappears, and it looks for a second as though he’s going to tear Peña and Shepard limb from limb. It’s a great bit of physical acting – or, then again, maybe it isn’t. It’s possible D’Onofrio’s just realised what a terrible film he’s in, and is trying to decide whether to fire his agent or kill the two leading men who talked him into it.
After you’ve sat through all 101 minutes of CHiPs‘ laboured comedy and crotch gags, you’ll probably feel the same way.
CHiPs is out now in UK cinemas.