For a film that was seemingly a real game changer, it sure took a while before the imitators of the 2011 adaptation of 21 Jump Street started coming out of the woodwork. Baywatch is coming later this year doing an R-rated, seemingly self-aware take on an old television property, but before that is the adaptation of the show CHiPs, which is written and directed by Dax Shepard, who also stars as Jon Baker alongside Michael Peña, who plays Frank ”Ponch” Poncherello.
While it may lack the meta commentary of something like 21 Jump Street, it very much indulges as farcical take on the original material. However, as formulaic as the episodes of the show may have been, there was at least a sense of heart and consistent commitment to character that the film attempts to bring in, but ultimately fails. The film bears very little resemblance to the TV show, aside from taking the very general idea of two California Highway Patrol officers trying to solve a case. Even the characters of Baker and Ponch don’t resonate the same way, sharing none of the sincerity that the original characters had, leaving a weird smugness that permeates through the whole film.
There’s a lot of ugly and weirdly mean-spirited humor in the film, from bizarre objectification to homophobic jokes, most of which come straight from Ponch. Baker even calls him out on it multiple times, but the film simply rinses and repeats. It shouldn’t have to be said, but just because a character is calling out the fact that a joke is homophobic, it doesn’t necessarily give the film a pass to simply repeat the joke over and over again. There’s a self-satisfaction to the humor at play which is totally unearned because there is no wit or cleverness to them. The best jokes are some of the more physical gags, but the effective ones are far and few between.
It should be noted that this is not Dax Shepard’s first outing as a writer and director (though it is his first solo directing credit), as he has made two films previously with 2010’s Brother’s Justice and 2012’s Hit and Run. Both were these weird, small, low budget projects with a uniquely idiosyncratic voice. Admittedly, they weren’t all that great, but they had their charms and their moments, and Shepard did seem to improve as he went on. However, with CHiPs, Shepard’s usual eccentricities feel oddly muted, not for a lack of crudeness, but in terms of cohesion and how it relates to the material he’s working with. The action is directed with competency, and the cast is certainly trying their best, but none of it fully gels. His style feels held back, and it shows. It’s to the point where the film seems to deviate so far from what made the original show so memorable and endearing that the final product feels so lifeless, and generic. And these are two words I wouldn’t describe Shepard’s last two films, as flawed as they might’ve been. If you were to take the show out of the picture, the film still wouldn’t be up to snuff. It has just enough to make it obvious that it was based on established IP, but lacks an original voice to really drive it, so to speak. And while there may be a chuckle or two to be had, so much of it feels uninspired, lazy, and unmemorable.
Dax Shepard and Michael Peña are a decent duo, eventually. They seem to be working on two vastly different wavelengths, and much of the first half of the film seems like they are constantly talking at each other, as opposed to with each other. Eventually, they build some chemistry, if through sheer force of will. The rest of the cast is filled with various capable actors like Jessica McNamee, Adam Brody, Justin Chatwin, Rosa Salazar, Maya Rudolph, Ryan Hansen, Kristen Bell (it’s like a mini Veronica Mars reunion), and Vincent D’Onofrio, who plays the big bad, Ray Kurtz.
No one is going to argue that CHiPs isn’t at the very least somewhat dated, even from someone like me who grew up watching reruns of it and enjoying the company of Baker and Ponch. An update could’ve been done, there new things that a film adaptation of the show could’ve brought, but it seemed clear that there was no real desire to put more thought and creativity than there needed to be. And frankly, it doesn’t even cross that threshold. For a film that is quick to mock and look down upon the basic premise of the show, it does little to nothing to back up its own ideas or do anything exciting to justify this whole venture. I think I’ll stick with the 1998 TV movie, CHiPs ‘99, which brought back Larry Wilcox and Erik Estrada, thank you very much.