“CHiPs,” a classic police procedural television series about a couple of California Highway Patrol motorcycle policemen, ran six seasons on NBC-TV (1977-1983) and inspired a 1999 made-for-TV reunion movie. Fans of this beloved series may have to fortify their sense of humor to handle the raunchy big-screen reboot that “Hit and Run” writer & director Dax Shepard has produced for 21st century moviegoers. Shepard has imitated the strategy that “Hangover” helmer Todd Phillips used in 2004 to parody the popular television police procedural “Starsky & Hutch” (1975-1979) that aired for four seasons on ABC-TV. The only other crime series about police partners that successfully survived the conversion from intelligent to infantile has been “21 Jump Street” (1987-1991) on Fox. Surprisingly, the “21 Jump Street” (2012) reboot and its sequel “22 Jump Street” (2014), co-starring Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, delivered loads of laughs and coined millions at the box office.
Comparably, “Starsky & Hutch” and Shepard’s “CHIPS” have grossed out their audiences more than engrossed them. The sidesplitting succession of juvenile R-rated gags ridicules anybody who treats gays without tolerance, extols the advantages of Anilingus, and skewers those afflicted with a sex addiction. Not surprisingly, bawdy, lowest-common-denominator humor of this type will alienate fans of the immaculate television series. “CHiPs” was wholeheartedly wholesome, and its heroic duo conducted themselves as role models compared to their rude, crude, and lewd cinematic counterparts. Neither Larry Wilcox nor Eric Estrada flashed their firearms during the entire series. Jake Rossen has pointed out in his article “14 Things You Might Not Know About CHiPs” on the Mental Floss website: “According to some fan tallies, a gun was drawn by police in just three out of 139 episodes—and never by Estrada or Wilcox.” Instead, Dax Shepard and co-star Michael Peña wield their pistols with reckless abandon throughout “CHIPS.”
Anybody who saw “Hit & Run” (2012) shouldn’t be surprised that Shepard has approached the subject matter in “CHIPS” (*** OUT OF ****) with tongue-in-cheek glee. Mind you, parents planning to take their children to watch the farcical “CHIPS” should know that the “Kids-in-the-Mind” website counted not only “85 F-words and its derivatives, 14 sexual references, 41 scatological terms, 39 anatomical terms, 10 mild obscenities” but also “9 religious profanities (GD), 25 religious exclamations.” Imagine a no-holds-barred rendering of “Police Academy” with vehicular mayhem, bullet-riddled combat, grubby interracial sex, and a wire decapitation, and you’ve got a glimmer about how enormously “CHIPS” differs from “ChiPs.”
“CHIPS” has been reimagined as a prequel. This action farce chronicles a crime wave of explosive armored car heists and the shenanigans of two dysfunctional California Highway Patrol partners determined to crack a suspected ring of corrupt cops that have been orchestrating these robberies with military exactitude. Like most 70s and 80s police procedural reboots, the central characters that Dax Shepard and Michael Peña portray share little in common with predecessors Larry Wilcox and Eric Estrada. Peña is cast as a womanizing, sex-texting, homophobic, trigger-happy, FBI agent named Castillo on loan from the Miami, Florida, field office. He has been reassigned to work undercover as a California Highway Patrolman. Castillo abhors the alias that the Agency has conjured up: Francis Llewelyn “Poncho” Poncherello. Castillo’s CHP partner is a fortysomething, probationary rookie, Jon Baker (Dax Shepard of “Idiocracy”), whose glory days as an X-Games motorcross champ are dim memories. Mind you, Baker remains a virtuoso on a bike, but his accuracy with a pistol is utterly pathetic. He couldn’t hit the side of a barn even if he were facing the front of the barn! Worse, he has broken as many bones as Evel Knievel, with 23 surgeries. Desperately, he hopes that his crisply-creased, brown CHP uniform will induce his estranged swim coach wife Karen (Kristen Bell of “Veronica Mars”) to come back to him. Karen’s father served as a uniformed policeman, and Jon is gambling that the uniform will do the trick.
Eventually, Ponch and Jon single out veteran CHP officer Ray Kurtz (Vincent D’Onofrio of “Full Metal Jacket”) as their chief suspect. Unfortunately, they lack adequate evidence either to link Kurtz to the raids or to pinpoint his accomplices. Ironically, our heroes don’t realize that they have been mingling daily with Kurtz’s accomplices inside the department. Meantime, the heat of their investigation pressures Kurtz to stop the robberies. Kurtz has been struggling to wean his errand son, Reed Jr. (Justin Chatwin of “The Invisible”), off heroin before the authorities arrest him. Kurtz converts the millions of dollars in loot his accessories and he stole into something of equal worth—a valuable painting–that he can take across the border without fear of arrest. Before Ponch and Jon can collect sufficient evidence to collar the evil Kurtz, they must bond so they can trust each other without a second thought. Ponch must curb not only his sex addiction but also his homophobia in the CHP locker room when fellow patrolmen slap and hug each other in their underwear and try to embrace him. Similarly, Jon must recognize that his unfaithful trophy wife Karen is a lost cause.
When he isn’t amusing audiences with one rollicking comic scene after another, director Dax Shepard stages some exhilarating motorcycle chases. One ends in an abrupt wire decapitation. The climactic firefight between the cops and the robbers is appropriately incendiary with hails of lead flying. Happily, Shepard’s Jon Baker and Peña’s Ponch emerge as three-dimensional characters, fleshed out with greater depth of character than their superficial, square-jawed, prime-time counterparts in the venerable television series. Vincent D’Onofrio makes a hardboiled villain with bulldog tenacity who refuses to back down without a fight. Shepard and Peña’s antics as well as their potentially offensive but uproariously funny predicaments aren’t likely to endear audiences that adored the original show. For the record, “ChiPs” star Eric Estrada has a cameo near the end as an EMT, while Larry Wilcox is predictably nowhere in sight. “CHIPS” qualifies as a gritty, giddy, gung-ho reboot of “CHiPs.”