This review was written for and appears on Punch Drunk Movies. Check out the site when you have a chance.
“CHIPS” is loathsome. But a funny thing happened as I left the screening. (Should I just go ahead and patent these “leaving the screening” stories?). I stopped by the studio rep to give my reaction, and suddenly, without knowing why, I blurted out, “Well, I didn’t HATE it,” and sheepishly absconded into the night. “I didn’t hate it.” The words still ring in my ears. I don’t know why I said that because, seriously, “CHIPS” is loathsome.
The movie is an update of the mostly breezy cop show from the late ‘70s about the California Highway Patrol. This update convolutes the simple plots of the TV show, but that’s fine since the series couldn’t find enough plot to pad out its run time without resorting to montages of disco dancing and roller-skating.
This time around, the title characters are still motorcycle cops, Jon Baker (Dax Shepard, who also wrote and directed) and Frank “Ponch” Poncherello (Michael Pena). But the former is now a broken down ex-pro-motorbiker, who joins the force in an attempt to impress his estranged wife (Kristen Bell), while the latter is an arrogant FBI agent undercover in the CHP (here his “Ponch” moniker is just a cover name) to investigate a multi-million dollar heist that left a police officer dead and the evidence pointing at someone in the patrol itself. This leads to car chases (though not as many as one might expect), the usual bickering between new partners, and humor, nominally.
“CHIPS” is the kind of movie that partially sets its opening in Miami and then makes little attempt to disguise that it’s actually filmed in Los Angeles. So from its early moments, I was already wary of the film. A little later, a senior officer (Maya Rudolph in a cameo) shows Jon a picture of her husband, and he’s cross-eyed. That’s the joke. Dread began creeping in; this was going to be a long 100 minutes.
But remember, I declared that I didn’t hate the movie. Why? Sometimes, when you know a movie is going to be stupid, you look for something, anything that could be interesting. Grading on that curve, “CHIPS” did offer a few things for me to hang on to. Dax generally has a shaggy, easygoing charm and Pena continues to impress with comic chops I only became aware of after his amusing role in “Ant-Man.”
I also enjoyed the fact that the bickering portion of Jon and Ponch’s partnership is dispensed of fairly early on, and that a fun camaraderie develops between the two.
The car chases are also decent, if unspectacular. At least they’re clearly filmed and don’t suffer from hyper-caffeinated editing.
And some of the jokes do land. An interlude where Ponch has to carry a naked Jon to a bathtub (don’t ask, it still won’t make sense), trips and ends up face-first in Jon’s crotch is a typical gay-panic joke that had my eyes rolling. But the jovial way that Jon reacts and Ponch’s eventual mirth kind of defuses the homophobic nature of the joke and turns the sequence into a funny shared moment between the two.
Otherwise, the movie is stomach churning. Women tend to get the short shrift in bro comedies such as this, and “CHIPS” is no exception. The female characters are either uncaring shrews or over-sexed horn-dogs (how dare a middle aged woman have sexual urges!), and when one of them actually is allowed to speak, it’s only to hit on the protagonists.
The last note I scribbled in my notebook just reads, “Fingers, WTF?” I’ll explain: In the film’s finale, someone has his fingers graphically shot off and another character braves gunfire to retrieve the severed digits. And that’s not the only jarring moment of ultra-violence. In the second act, there’s a disturbing sequence involving a speeding motorcycle and a steel cable. If the filmmakers wanted to make that kind of a movie from the beginning, I could handle it. But it’s pretty tame up until then. It completely took me out of the film and ruined the somewhat genial tone. What were they thinking?
“CHIPS” is basically a low-rent “21 Jump Street.” That movie also took a cheesy television show and turned it into an “R” rated, vulgar comedy with likable actors as the leads. The difference, though, is that “Jump Street” was clever. And despite a few, fleeting charms, “CHIPS” is anything but.