CHIPS, which opened Friday, is already being championed as a Worst Movie of the Year candidate — and rightfully so. I like dumb movies, but CHIPS is worse than dumb, because it is also painfully dull. And yet! There was a kernel here to make a stupidly fun reboot. I left the theater with some lingering questions, such as …
1. Who is the intended audience for this film?
I loved the original CHiPs television show (down to the toys), but I can’t recall a single plotline from the series, which ran from 1977 to 1983. Given our similarity in age, I’m guessing Dax Shepard — who wrote, directed, and stars in the reboot — can’t, either. Shepard nailed the show’s simple appeal in a recent interview: “The motorcycles, and the California, and the two best friends.” Frank “Ponch” Poncherello and Jon Baker are California Highway Patrol officers. Ponch is the bad boy, Jon is the square, and the duo wear funny-looking brown uniforms and ride white motorcycles on goofy highway chases. Simple, campy fun.
But who is this new CHIPS for? It can’t be for those looking for CHiPs nostalgia, like me, because the film is neither campy nor fun. And for anybody under 30 with no recollection of the original CHiPs, the movie is too juvenile and uninspiring to re-establish the brand. If I had to posit an answer to this question, it would be … bros who enjoy low-budget chase sequences and “gay panic” humor? More on this later.
2. Why didn’t they set this film in the late ’70s/early ’80s?
In my colleague Ben Lindbergh’s Remake Necessity Score, one of the questions used to determine a franchise’s remakability is: Was the Original Inseparable From Its Era? I’d argue that the charm of the original CHiPs was inextricably linked to its early-’80s cheese: the poofy haircuts, the garish-looking cars, the lo-fi action. A CHiPs superfan tallied a total of only three times that cops drew their guns in the series’ entire 139-episode run. The show was officially backed by the California Highway Patrol, so it had to be squeaky clean.
In the new CHIPS, we get profanity, nudity, and gunfire within the opening three minutes. There are multiple sexting scenes. It’s very proud of how 2010s it is. The OG Ponch didn’t need an iPhone to get busy. The OG Jon Baker does not approve.
3. Why did Wilmer Valderrama never get the chance to play Ponch?
Hollywood lore has it that the CHIPS movie was originally conceived as a star vehicle for Wilmer during the era of Peak Valderrama. It’s unclear why that slam-dunk idea never came to be, but it is crystal clear that Michael Peña is too good for this — and, no shots, Peña’s a little petite to be taken seriously as a Casanova.
4. What the hell is going on with the plot?
I’m not even mad at the contrived backstories for the reboot — Ponch is an FBI agent posing as a highway patrolman and Baker is an injury-addled X-Games burnout — and Peña and Shepard have enough chemistry to make their banter intermittently enjoyable. I am very mad, however, at the incoherence of the actual plot. The story feels so haphazardly slapped together that it makes your average CSI feel like The French Connection.
5. Why does this film take itself so seriously?
I read the following in a Collider article about CHIPS: “The movie is described as ‘action first and comedy second,’ according to Shepard. It isn’t like the 21 Jump Street reboot, according to Dax. ‘It takes itself seriously.’” Wait, what? Didn’t the 21 Jump Street reboot make $138 million at the box office and spawn a sequel? Wouldn’t it make sense to follow a formula that has already proved to be successful? I would’ve been perfectly happy had CHIPS hired a bunch of former SNL cast members to appear in one-off scenes depicting comedic traffic stops. You know: the hide-the-blunt scene, the accidental drunk driver, the uptight road rager, the serial texter. This is what Andy Samberg was made for. Instead, we get Shepard — perhaps most famous for riding his wife’s coattails into a series of bad commercials, or for his work on Punk’d — who is convinced he’s making Mad Max: Santa Barbara Vengeance.
6. Why are the chase sequences so underwhelming?
Shepard told Newsday: “When I was writing these set pieces I knew I only had $25 million, so I wasn’t going to be doing ‘Fast and Furious’–level stuff.” Yeah, no shit. The film is basically an ineffectual, 100-minute ad for Ducati and Chevrolet. Where, exactly, did that $25 million go? It can’t cost that much to mount a GoPro.
7. Why is there so much gay panic in the film?
My first recollection of Shepard is of his pixelated genital region from a long-ago Punk’d episode when he flashed Jessica Alba — fitting, I suppose, given the number of scenes involving male genitalia in his directorial debut. Balls to the face! Hilarious! Seth Rogen and James Franco have murdered, dismembered, and set fire to this kind of humor. Just let it lie in peace.
8. Is that actually Jane Kaczmarek’s naked chest or did she use a body double?
Then there’s the scene in which Kaczmarek’s police sergeant engages in a raunchy FaceTime call, baring her nude upper body. Predictably, the film plays it for a low-hanging ageist joke — OMG, old-woman titties, DISGUSTING!!! — but I was left wondering if the mom from Malcolm in the Middle really does get down like that.
9. Vincent D’Onofrio, what are you doing here?
We get why Kristen Bell is here — till death do us part, etc. etc. — but D’Onofrio is overqualified to play the most generic of villains. To be fair, as with his work in Daredevil and The Magnificent Seven, D’Onofrio kills it in his limited screentime. We needed less Dax, and way more Vinny D.
10. Will anyone let Dax Shepard do this again?
Despite the sheer stupidity of his directorial debut, Shepard is a likable performer and he’s not bad at physical comedy. (Though Hollywood “can’t stand” him and his wife, apparently?) I harbor no ill will toward him for fumbling this reboot, which he even admitted was a way to get some directorial reps “but do it under the umbrella of a global property so the studio would let me make it.” At the end of the day, it’s friggin’ CHiPs. We’ll survive. Shepard’s IMDb indicates that he is currently working on a feature-length animated Scooby-Doo film, which, sure: if you assume that he has been preparing his entire life to play the role of Shaggy, his career begins to make a lot more sense.
Beyond that? Shepard told Maxim: “I would love a CHiPs franchise. But I would love to do [’80s action TV show] The Fall Guy. I think that would be so much fun.” Dax, my man: Leave Lee Majors alone.