Film Review: ‘CHIPS’

Chips Trailer
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Dax Shepard and Michael Peña star in an action-comedy reboot of the TV series that puts buddy-movie clichés in a blender.

We critics often get asked how we can sit through so many bad movies. The answer — apart from the fact that it isn’t exactly hard labor — is that even a lot of middling Hollywood product has moments of baseline entertainment value. The average Adam Sandler comedy is funnier than the worst Adam Sandler comedy; most mediocre superhero movies are better than “Suicide Squad.” And when it comes to the brain-dead action comedy that “ironically” reboots a piece-of-crap television series from the ’70s or ’80s, “Starsky & Hutch” and “The Dukes of Hazzard” were flat-out masterpieces compared to “CHIPS,” an ultra-violent and ultra flavorless buddy movie that’s so dedicated to hitting the generic sweet spot of “what the audience wants” that it actually had to go and capitalize the “i” in the title, as if that quirky lower-case digit from the TV show was just too threateningly odd.

“CHIPS” was written and directed by its co-star, Dax Shepard, an actor with a puckish off-center charisma I’ve always enjoyed. But the movie is what it looks like when mindless slumming convinces itself that it’s hip. Shepard has a distinctive fugly appeal — he’s tall and loose-limbed, with the preening confidence of a star, and with eccentric features that are just this side of handsome. He looks like Martin Short with Peter Weller’s bird-like stare grafted on; he’s like a sexy alien. In “CHIPS,” he plays Jon Baker, a former competitive motorcycle rider whose beaten-up body is a scarred welter of aches and pains (he pops opiates like candy), but he’s inept at everything except riding that chopper.

Baker, after years of training, has worked his way up into the storied ranks of the California Highway Patrolmen, on their wide-bodied Ducati bikes. Shepard did much of his own stunt work, and he’s clearly having a good time showing off his motorcycle acumen: the popped wheelies and high-velocity fearlessness (accentuated by shots mounted on the handlebars), the ability to snake a bike down a serpentine L.A. staircase. As a TV show, “CHiPs” had some fairly elaborate action set pieces for its time, but in “CHIPS” all the speed and mayhem is a numbing semi-joke: Evel Knievel meets “Bad Boys IV.”

Baker gets teamed with a new officer who, unbeknownst to him, is an FBI agent. Frank Poncherello (Michael Peña) — that’s his alias — has been assigned to the CHP to flush out a coterie of dirty cops who’ve stolen $14 million. There’s never any big mystery about who they are or what they’re up to (their ringleader is portrayed by a bearded and snarling Vincent D’Onofrio, who should really take a break from playing heavies), yet “CHIPS,” despite its moments of frat-house goofiness, plays the cop caper in a glumly straight fashion. The film’s model is — or should have been — the movie version of “21 Jump Street” and its sequel, but the co-directors of those bumptious nihilistic undercover burlesques, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, knew how to turn comedy into suspense and thrills into media-mad absurdity. Shepard just sprinkles overstated banter onto a generic plot and bits of pedal-to-the-metal action, as if he was serving the action-comedy gods by sticking the usual ingredients in a blender and pushing “purée.”

It’s doubtful there’ll be much of an audience to drink it up. The movie’s fudged-out lack of funniness starts with Shepard, who plays Baker with a stoned version of his usual fast-break timing. Baker, in addition to being a drug addict, is a whipped husband married to a princess who keeps him in the doghouse (she’s played by Kristen Bell, Shepard’s real-life spouse), and after too much couples’ counseling, he’s become an L.A. therapy-head who jabbers on about things like “closure” and “deflecting.” But he’s also a junk-food junkie and testy violent daredevil. He’s whatever Dax Shepard feels like playing at any given moment, so the character never quite gels.

Peña’s “Ponch” is a more amusing presence, a level-headed macho hard case who can’t believe he has to put up with such a flaky partner. Peña knows how to understate, even when Ponch can barely contain his libido around a woman in yoga pants. There is also, of course, much winky homoerotic slapstick panic between the two men, including a face-meets-nutsack moment that looks like it was a lot funnier for the actors than it turns out to be for us.

It’s become routine for a movie to put ’70s trash in quotation marks, but “CHIPS” actually encourages you to think it’s being ironic about its own badness. “Look,” the film seems to be saying, “it’s the same old junk! But we know how junky it is! Isn’t that a laff riot?” There’s one scene of unforced hilarity, when Ponch informs Baker about the new mainstreaming of a certain sexual practice (the joke is in Peña’s casually serene polymorphous perversity). The movie also has some grisly violence (too much of it), including a decapitation and a moment where a major character gets three of his fingers shot off. “CHIPS”never does more than nod in the abstract to the original Larry Wilcox/Erik Estrada TV series, with its stoic hunk heroes in their skintight police-geek uniforms, yet this is one (rare) case where I wished a movie based on something that was hardly worth adapting had stuck closer to the original show. There’s a running gag about how those khaki uniforms now look like they belong on UPS deliverymen, and that kind of sums up “CHIPS”: It takes cops who once had an aura and turns them into Paul Blart with attitude.

Film Review: 'CHIPS'

Reviewed at AMC Lincoln Square, New York, March 22, 2017. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 101 MIN.

Production

A Warner Bros. release of a RatPac-Dune Entertainment, Primate Pictures, Panay Films production. Producer: Ravi D. Mehta, Dax Shepard. Andrew Panay. Executive producers: Bob Dohrmann, Rick Rosner, Greg Silverman, Nate Tuck.

Crew

Director, screenplay: Dax Shepard. Camera (color, widescreen): Mitchell Amundsen. Editor: Dan Lebental.

With

Michael Peña, Dax Shepard, Jessiva McNamee, Adam Brody, Ryan Hansen, Justin Chatwin, Kristen Bell, Vincent D’Onofrio, Rose Salazar, Maya Rudolph.

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  1. nunya says:

    maybe wanna be writers shouldn’t be film critics. if you’re going to go to such lengths to trash a movie, perhaps stick to the point and quit trying to seem intelligent by cramming in overly archaic un-used pedantic filler. (see i can do it too) also i came to read a film review, not hear your diatribe about the actors looks. im guessing you’re no sweet model either.

  2. Holly Martin says:

    This movie was Hilarious to me, I thought Dax did a great job writing. It was perfectly cast and executed. Many laugh out louds.

  3. azeem says:

    A fascination with posteriors — both human and feline — isn’t the worst thing about “CHIPS,” but it’s up there. Borderline incoherent and unrepentantly lewd, this buddy-cop comedy (based on the 1977-83 television series of the same name) substitutes cars, ’copters and motorcycles for actual characters. The language might be mature, but don’t be misled: There’s nothing here that rises above the level of the playground.

    And that’s too bad, because had there been, the talented Michael Peña wouldn’t have had to work so hard to hold this minimally amusing mess together. As Ponch, an undercover federal agent investigating corruption in the California Highway Patrol, Mr. Peña struggles to make his character more than a walking erection. That’s tough when your new partner, Jon (Dax Shepard, who also wrote and directed), seems so fixated on his own equipment that he keeps forcing you to look at it. The mixed messages are clamorous.

    Exhibitionism aside, Jon is a battle-scarred motocross rider who has joined the patrol to impress his estranged wife (Kristen Bell, Mr. Shepard’s real-life spouse). Together, the partners chase unidentifiable men in full-face helmets and converse about what constitutes an acceptable masturbation schedule. A corpulent and clearly embarrassed Vincent D’Onofrio slips in and out of the frame as a dirty cop, and the delightful Rosa Salazar, playing a sexily competent colleague, deserves much more attention than the hardware-obsessed script is willing to give her.

    “I don’t think we went more than three days on this movie without blowing something up,” Mr. Shepard says in the publicity notes, betraying the picture’s true intent. Yet beyond checking genre boxes, the action sequences, while undeniably flashy, often have debatable narrative utility. The accomplished cinematographer Mitchell Amundsen brings what context he can to the pyrotechnics, but not even he can perk up the movie’s drearily staged indoor setups. Focusing his camera intently on a cat’s backside, he must surely have been questioning his life choices.

  4. “Piece of crap TV series”… Dude, you totally missed the boat here. When CHiPs was on TV, it was very popular. Kids would pretend to be John and Ponch, spawning a generation of police officers that grew up watching CHiPs. CHiPs made police officers cool. It might be cheesy by todays standards, but back in the 70s it one of the more popular sitcoms on TV.

    The 2017 movie looks like it’s going to ruin what CHiPs was all about, which is a real bummer.

  5. Margo King says:

    I have the belief that some things need to be left alone. Original family tv shows and family movies that were successes in their original form need not be updated from their original social status for their time periods. Our current social status of 2017 is light years different from the 1970’s and 1980’s. Trying to update CHiPs to a current 2017 social status is like cursing the original Karate Kid when Will Smith re-did that movie. I was not impressed but I am Old School raised in a different time this is not a movie I would take my 11-year old son to

  6. Jenny W says:

    I don’t know about the movie, but this review is a train wreck. Who is editing at Variety now? Owen Gleiberman is a first rate asshole. His nasty comments and put downs must have pleased himself, but it’s crap to read. Get rid of this turd.

  7. Not BillUSA says:

    It wasn’t just the “i” that was lowercased in the original series… it was the “s” too. Basically, the word CHiPs was a play on CHP (California Highway Patrol) so why bring up the lowercase “i” and not the “s” unless you honestly never understood why it was called CHiPs in the first place?)

  8. JOE S HILL says:

    Another casualty of seriously BAD “remake-itis”! but then, the absurd idea of trying to do classic 70s TV shows into movies just hasn’t gone anywhere! the original NBC series was produced by Metro Goldwyn Mayer Television from 1977 to 1983, and Rick Rosner, along with Cy Chermak (“KOLCHAK:The NIGHT STALKER” and “IRONSIDE”) had made the show a huge success! so whatever Warner Bros. is thinking here, the remake thing just sucks big time! they (Warners) lost big time with 2015’s “THE MAN FROM UNCLE”, so what on earth makes them think that they’ve got a winner here, by remaking “CHiPS”? that is so retarded, and a waste of time and money! will they use Eric Estrada and Larry Wilcox in cameos?

  9. I just wonder how this was pitched and who in their right mind bought it. :)

  10. Jack G says:

    “Shepard has a distinctive fugly appeal…” Say what you want about the movie, Owen, but ridiculing the guy’s looks is just a lame shortcut to adding a couple sentences to your crummy article. If he was fat, gay, or black, you’d be vilified for being a fat-shamer, homophobe, or racist. But because he’s a white male you think it must be okay – it ain’t.

    You’re no prize either, BTW.

    • Well, as a fat gay black guy, I assure you it is NOT ok. This critic is just like all the rest now, relying on snark and snobbery (especially since the vast majority of them have no experience whatsoever in the actual industry). Shepard’s bank accounts speak for themselves I’m sure, made mostly on this kind of humor. If you don’t like it, don’t pay the 50 bucks it takes to go to the movies these days. If you do, go and enjoy.

  11. JoeMcG says:

    “ironically” reboots a piece-of-crap television series”… OK, I’m with you about the whole “ironic reboot” thing… but “piece of crap television series?” Referencing Starsky and Hutch and the Dukes of Hazard? These shows may not have been among the likes of “Breaking Bad” or “MASH,” but “piece of crap” is pretty strong. I watched these shows as a kid-teen-young adult. It wasn’t “Downton Abby” but they weren’t all that bad. Starsky & Hutch had some genuine drama and was pretty cutting edge for it’s day. A show like this helped to make other shows, like Hill Street Blues, Cagney & Lacey, and NYPD Blue possible. As for the Dukes of Hazard, well let’s admit it, was all about chasing the General Lee, every teen boy’s gear-head fantasy… but they did a pretty good job of that and the talent helped to make some fairly episodic fun a bit more credible.

    My point is, that whenever Hollywood reboots one of these iconic old TV series (and by the way, an icon doesn’t mean it has to be great) as a farcical comedy, it’s a complete slap in the face to all those who enjoyed the original, not to mention all those talented people who worked on those shows. CHiP’s wasn’t exactly high art, but it did take itself seriously, like all these other shows. To turn that around into something you can’t take seriously at all, well, that’s just crap.

    • Jack G says:

      Well said.

      • Margo King says:

        Yes, in hindsight the show taught us life lessons but what did we get from the show? I learned a lot from CHiPs and other shows like One Day at a Time,etc. Now that we are grown and live in a different time the shows don’t appeal to us the same way. Personally I see current TV programming shoveling post 9-11 Rhetoric on our big screens and tv’s where many of our children were born after 2001 are soaking it in being fed lies. I hate it. I share your sentiment somewhat.

      • rodittis says:

        Why is the act of re-interpreting the past as farce “just crap”? Isn’t that the basis of satire?
        I watched and enjoyed those shows when they came out but when I go back and watch them now, I find them ridiculous and unintentionally camp. [shrug] Tastes change.
        I haven’t seen the reboot but I don’t consider it a “slap in the face” that others also see the humor in these old TV shows. In fact, it doesn’t even have to be an old show. SNL and Comic Relief have both done humorous send-ups of Downton Abbey. I enjoy both the real drama AND the satire. No face-slapping required.

  12. DJ RItty says:

    See this is a problem – if no one liked suicide squad or it was SO bad WHY was it one of the top grossing pics of the year (and not just by a little but A LOT). Your opinion is not fact in a case like this… I bet I can find this idiot’s name on Batman Forever or Batman and Robin saying he liked those and those movies were not ‘better’ than suicide squad.

  13. Bill B. says:

    I really enjoy the very versatile Pena, but I would have to be paid to see this.

  14. heyitsron says:

    If you want these movies to succeed, these movies based on a past highly successful TV series, then bring back the former stars. Yes, Erik Estrada and Larry Wilcox are both alive and well and would have been eager for a reprisal of their roles. You do it, you do it right. Or don’t do it at all. The same with that horrible Miami Vice movie. Could have gotten Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas but no went with whatever happened to be running by the barn at the time. Same here. Who wouldn’t want to have seen a reprisal of Sonny Crockett? The real Sonny Crockett? The same as with “Ponch” Poncherello and Jon Baker. The real dudes. Not some “johnny come latelys” who will be forgotten by that second tub of popcorn. And producers? Spend that money wisely. Think these things through.

    • DJ RItty says:

      This is a great point about hollywood. Most of these movies FAIL because they’re rebranded instead of being marketed to the audience that remembers them. Why can’t us older cats get something for us – why is always for theses stupid kids?

      • Jim says:

        Exactly….these studio suits green light bad projects just because of name recognition from whatever they reboot and they think that alone will guarantee them some box office success. It’s a really short-sighted play it safe mentality that has happened because you have a bunch of corporate suits without any creativity or originality making these decisions.

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