It’s hard to understand how CHiPs came to be made. There has been, in recent years, something of a trend toward slightly ironic, somewhat knowingly mocking film remakes of American telly from the 1970s and 1980s — 21 Jump Street, Starchy & Hutch, the soon-to-arrive Baywatch — but it’s hard to see that a somewhat bland and inoffensive series about a couple of coppers on motorbikes was a necessary addition to this club.
This might explain why CHiPs is as incoherent a film as it is. The story focusses on Jon Baker and “Ponch” Poncherello; in this new iteration, however, Jon is a stunt motorcyclist who applies to the California Highway Patrol as a last-ditch attempt to save his marriage, while Ponch is a sex-addicted, homophobic FBI agent from Miami who is sent undercover to find out who in the CHP is involved in a series of armoured-car hold-ups. It’s an adequate setup, not a particularly brilliant one, and it’s played out in very broad strokes and little nuance or detail. The story might have made an acceptable plot for an episode of the original series, but it’s not enough to sustain an hour and forty minutes.
So onto this slight framework is bolted a series of ill-conceived attempts at humour that manage a very inconsistent hit rate. Early in the film, as Jon is trying to convince the CHP to hire him, we are offered gags about disability that are profoundly poorly judged, and which were met at the screening I attended by very little laughter. Michael Peña brings a little warmth to the roll of Ponch, but it’s an underwritten part. The same is true of Jon, but Dax Shepard, having also written and directed the film, can blame nobody but himself. And so CHiPs plods on. There are occasional moments when it threatens to be genuinely funny — a riff on Ponch’s ability to identify a woman’s Lululemon yoga pants just from Jon’s description of the gusset had the potential to be the foundation of a running gag about a yoga-pants fixation, but Shepard appears not quite to know how to build on the foundations he’s created, and instead swerves and veers toward blundering homophobia. The inconsistency of the film’s humour leaves you feeling as though the jokes were bolted on long after the story, complete with some extraordinarily nasty violence, had been put to bed.
So while CHiPs isn’t as dreadful as some critics have made it out to be, it’s also not as good as it wants to be. Shepard seems unwilling, or unable perhaps, to commit to the full-on gross-out humour he appears to aspire to, and, to be fair, it’s a very difficult genre to pull off with any great success. The Farrelly Brothers managed it with films like There’s Something About Mary, but while they understood that it’s a still you really have to commit to to make it work, even they haven’t really been able to maintain their momentum, Dum and Dumber To being possibly their low-water mark.
CHiPs is an entirely disposable, forgettable, unnecessary film. It’s not bad enough to be offensive, or even fun; it’s just not quite fun enough to get away with being offensive.