CHIPS is a generic buddy cop comedy that will leave both longtime fans and newcomers alienated with a weak story and thin characters.
One day in California, a band of criminals robs millions of dollars from an armored car and leave one police officer dead. As the California Highway Patrol begins their investigation, they suspect the job was perpetrated by some dirty cops and call on the FBI to help out in the case. The Bureau sends the skilled, yet irreverent, Miami-based agent Castillo (Michael Peña) out west to go undercover with the CHIPS. Castillo assumes his new identity of Frank “Ponch” Poncherello and gets to work on finding the five crooked officers so he can bring them to justice.
Upon arriving in Los Angeles, Poncherello is partnered with aged rookie John Baker (Dax Shepard), an X-Games flameout who has suffered one too many injuries in his career and is desperately trying to save his failing marriage with wife Karen (Kristen Bell) by working at the Highway Patrol. The two must put aside their personal differences to team up and solve the mystery of the armored car job, possibly developing a life-long friendship in the process – as long as they both get out alive.
CHIPS is based on the classic television series that aired from 1977-1983 and is the latest attempt by Hollywood to give a small screen show a reboot for the big screen, hopefully introducing the property to a new generation of fans. Whereas the original NBC series was a drama (with some humorous elements), this movie strives to be an all-out R-rated comedy in the vein of something like Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s 21 Jump Street. Unfortunately, the creative team falls short of their ultimate goals. CHIPS is a generic buddy cop comedy that will leave both longtime fans and newcomers alienated with a weak story and thin characters.
Shepard, who also wrote and directed the film, really struggles with his approach. While he is trying something new with the material, the execution is off almost from the beginning. Shepard and crew follow a very standard, by-the-numbers formula that does not inject anything fresh into a tried and true genre, which will leave some viewers feeling bored. The main narrative is quite dull and uninteresting, making the film feel slightly longer than its sub-two hour runtime. Things might have been better if Shepard attempted some clever commentary on the responsibilities of modern law enforcement (think: Jump Street and high school culture), but CHIPS uses the Highway Patrol as little more than a backdrop to fuel a basic “find the dirty cop” story.
Obviously, the relationship between new partners Ponch and Baker is a main through line in CHIPS, and it’s difficult to say the two make a great team. Much of the humor (especially early on) stems from their clashing outlooks on life. Baker is a sensitive man who prefers to open up about his feelings, while Ponch is a riff on the macho tough guy and suffers from a severe case of sex addiction (which is played up to almost cartoonish levels here). The actors themselves are decent in their roles, but the script follows an extremely basic trajectory and gives both little to work with. Their dynamic and overall arc feels unearned and underwritten, and they never really feel like an inseparable pair. To CHIPS’ credit, the film does include a specific incident that attempts to explain the quick transition from bickering to buddies, but it’s still not nearly enough.
The supporting cast unfortunately fares much worse. If Ponch and Baker are merely sketches of expected action comedy archetypes, those around them are essentially non-existent. Vincent D’Onofrio is completely wasted in a villain role with minimal screen time and little depth to explore, despite there being some potential with the relationship between his character and his son. Just about every female role leaves much to be desired as well, as many of the women in CHIPS are there simply to be ogled at by Ponch or make obvious advances towards Baker. In an era where many movies are featuring actresses as compelling characters that can carry a film, CHIPS is sadly something of a step backward, relying more on older industry practices that feel out of date. That sentiment also extends to several of the lowbrow gags, which feel lewd and crude for the sake of it than being natural.
Where CHIPS is arguably most successful is in the action. While the set pieces are nothing revolutionary and still run-of-the-mill, Shepard’s love of motorcycles is apparent through these sequences (and probably the biggest factor in him making the film). Baker’s prowess with the bikes is an extension of Shepard, as the actor did much of his own riding throughout the film, including stunts like wheelies and driving down a staircase. That passion and dedication is appreciated; it only would have been better if the film featured stronger characters or a more fascinating narrative, so the audience had a reason to care and got more than just superficial thrills out of these scenes.
In the end, CHIPS knows what it wants to be, it just never gets there, and that’s disappointing. With more attention to detail and a better script, the film could have been a nice heir apparent to the Jump Street duology instead of a basic studio comedy. There isn’t much to recommend here, since established fans of the property will be turned off by the raunchy take and younger viewers will wonder what the point is. Thanks to poor writing, a weak approach to storytelling, and some bizarre tonal shifts, CHIPS is a misfire, and moviegoers are safe waiting for Baywatch to get some R-rated laughs – unless one found the marketing appealing.
CHIPS is now playing in U.S. theaters. It runs 100 minutes and is rated R for crude sexual content, graphic nudity, pervasive language, some violence and drug use.
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