The randy action-comedy “CHiPs” is pitched to that 18-24 demographic, but that audience is probably wondering what this whole California Highway Patrol movie is about. Two words, teens: Erik Estrada. He was the ultimate late ’70s small-screen sex symbol and people were really into his hair — at least according to what we’ve been able to glean from the “CHiPS” detritus that always seems to be in the pop cultural ether.
Who knew that a TV dramedy about a pair of cool motorcycle riding cops and their antics in the SoCal sunshine would have such staying power? The series, which went off the air 34 years ago, has been reconfigured by writer/director/star Dax Shepard for the big screen. He delivers a film that simmers with a rambunctious and indifferent energy, one that’ll have you chuckling in spite of yourself.
Shepard plays Jon Baker, a loosey-goosey former X Games motocross athlete who has joined the California Highway Patrol in a last-ditch attempt to win back the heart of his wife, Karen (Kristen Bell). Studded with scars from his physical and emotional injuries, he gobbles pain pills — and rainy weather essentially paralyzes him. He speaks in therapy language and is more emotionally intelligent than any other kind of smart. If anything, Shepherd gives his character too many issues, and they pay off in punchlines rather than story moments, which are mostly unnecessary.
Though Jon may be riddled with quirks, the swaggering, uber-macho Ponch (Michael Pena) draws our focus. This might be a buddy comedy, but Pena is the clear star of the show. Finally, someone gives the always excellent perennial supporting actor the spotlight (and, of course, he has to share it). His Ponch is a maverick undercover FBI agent with two fatal flaws: He’s a sex addict and he keeps shooting his partner (Adam Brody).
Pena has shined in smaller comedic roles, and now he gets the chance to truly demonstrate his chops. There’s an ease to his performance, which balances Shepard’s more off-the-wall character. The movie is at its most fun when they’re fun together. He gets to be a real sex symbol, just like Estrada’s Ponch, and Pena pulls it off in spades, despite his character’s many, many sexual obsessions and mishaps.
The jokes are dirty and wildly inappropriate, but are thoughtfully played. Ponch’s deep aversion to touching a semi- or fully-naked Jon is examined through a series of questions about whether that’s homophobic or not. A discussion about a unique sex act might make you blush, but it becomes more about the evolving cultural norms around sex.
The plot, which revolves around a convoluted, inside job heist, doesn’t matter much. It’s simply the context and setting to put these two guys together and watch them become bros. All of the strings are only sort of haphazardly pulled together at the end, and really, it’s just the backdrop to the heartwarming brotherly bonding amongst a bunch of wild motorcycle chases all over LA.
“CHiPs” has about as much nutritional cinematic value as the potato variety. It’s yet another example of Hollywood’s troubling tendency toward trying to turn retro intellectual property into box office gold. But Pena’s star turn and Shepard’s easy-breezy weirdo comic touch make the light comedy worth a watch.
☆☆☆ out of 5
Cast: Michael Pena, Dax Shepard, Kristen Bell, Adam Brody, Ryan Hansen, Vincent D’Onofrio.
Writer-director: Dax Shepard.
Running time: 1:40.
Rated: R, for crude sexual content, graphic nudity, pervasive language, some violence and drug use.