CHiPs is what happens when you adapt a successful-yet-forgettable eighties action series in the style of a poorly-aged nineties sitcom.
There are a whole host of problems with CHiPs, but tone is the biggest concern. Writer and director Dax Shepard never seems entirely sure what he’s pitching, which leads to a bizarre mishmash of a juvenile gay panic comedy with retro nostalgia trappings strapped on to a lazy police thriller. None of these elements work particularly well on their own, but mashing them all together leads to even bigger problems. CHiPs tries to be several different things, and succeeds at none of them.
Who is the target market for CHiPs? The film pitches itself as a raunchy parodic reimagining of a show that was beloved at the time, but has faded into history. There’s obvious precedent here, and CHiPs can be reasonably placed as part of the movement that includes 21 Jump Street and Baywatch. However, CHiPs does not aim for nostalgia enough to appeal to fans of the show, and is not clever enough to attract the same audience as 21 Jump Street. The result is a reboot of an eighties motorcycle cop show aimed at fourteen-year-old boys.
Ironically, CHiPs feels retro for all the wrong reasons. CHiPs is largely defined by the idea that bodily functions (and male sexual organs) are hilarious, and that there is nothing funnier than two dudes touching each other’s erogenous zones, particularly when there’s at least one dude pointing out how hilarious it is. CHiPs is defensive nineties gay panic wrapped in eighties nostalgia. It is a strange cocktail.
CHiPs fails the basic test for a comedy. It is not very funny. Part of this is down to weird tonal whiplash underscored by the schizophrenic soundtrack and a weak directorial hand. CHiPs is a movie that transitions from what should be goofy comedy bickering to brutal high-stakes threats to comedy pratfalls to excessive violence to a bitter comedy punchline, never allowing any of those beats to breath, and never catching up. The audience is cued in by a helpful score, that helpfully plays the quirky base so the viewers know the funny bit is over.
All the comedy in CHiPs feels like it came with a laugh track that was thankfully muted. CHiPs has the sort of sensibility that defined some of the more provocative television comedies of the mid-nineties, the idea that fart jokes and sexual references are inherently funny of themselves. Frank Poncherello’s defining attribute is that he is a sex addict, and CHiPs finds his combination chronic masturbation, exaggerated homophobia and sexual desperation to be an unending source of hilarity.
The politics at work here are very nineties. CHiPs thinks it is a great joke to point out that Poncherello is so desperate for sexual attention that he would sleep with somebody outside of what would normally be considered attractive; a girl with weird hair and glasses, a woman in her sixties with a “tight” body. Women exist primarily as trophies or the butt of jokes, or both. Almost every female character in CHiPs is defined by her romantic relationship to or interest a man, even the officer played by Maya Rudolph towards the start of the film.
CHiPs offers some half-hearted ironic disclaimers for its jokes about Ponch’s homophobia. “It’s cool if you’re homophobic,” Jon Baker assures him after he declines a locker-room hug. “I mean, it’s not cool.” Ponch gets very defensive. “For it to be homophobic, you’d have to be gay!” he protests. CHiPs affords itself the veneer of laughing at Ponch’s insecurity, but it still finds something hilarious about two men’s privates bumping off one another in slow motion or two guys lying on the ground together as How Do I Live? plays in the background.
The most charitable reading of the film would suggest that Shepard is aiming for irony and squarely missing, but even that seems in doubt. He spends a significant portion of once scene rapidly cutting back to the anus of a cat. One character almost vomits after walking in two other characters having sex. Jon Baker’s wife is portrayed as a manipulative and cold-hearted shrew without a shred of humanity, even taking the time to nag him when the two are involved in an action scene together.
The jokes are incredibly crass, and yet also surprising retro. CHiPs devotes an unhealthy amount of time to the questions of sexual etiquette that defined the work of Kevin Smith, although they are delivered with an even more adolescent sensibility. Yet CHiPs also finds room for awkward physical comedy, whether it’s Dax Shepard repeatedly falling down or an embarrassing beat involving a stunt driver with banter from the two lead characters played over the soundtrack.
To be fair, the best jokes in CHiPs are those old-school gags. There is a recurring joke about how every truck in the film must be destined to blow up, a ramping up of the stock action movie cliché. At the climax, two characters find themselves locked in mortal combat, their forearms locked in casts. What follows is effectively a sword fight using casts. CHiPs works best when it embraces that absurdity, when it dares to provoke laughter at something other than bodily functions.
At the same time, there’s a weird dissonance at play, as if Dax Shepard is half-considering making a serious motorcycle cop movie. The plot logic in CHiPs does not hang together, but the plot still feels absurdly over-developed. The villain of the piece is presented as a character who is meant to be entirely threatening, despite the comedic tone of the film around him. Despite the fact that his plot makes no sense, and that his actions don’t tie together at all, CHiPs seems weirdly invested in its cliché “cops-become-robbers” plot.
There is an awkward earnestness to all this, as the primary antagonist finds himself dealing with serious personal issues. He literally summarises his own plot thread at one point to another crooked cop, “My son is addicted to heroin, and I’ve got to get him out of this city, or else he’ll never get clean.” It is ridiculous, because it plays as an attempt to add sincere pathos to a villain who is already presented as pretty serious for an ostensibly comedic film
Again, the most charitable reading of the film suggests that Dax Shepard is aiming for the sort of meta-humour that defined 21 Jump Street. The plot of the film is just ridiculous enough that it could have been played entirely straight as an episode of eighties television, and so it could be pitched as a self-aware gag about the sort of angst melodramatic plotting of popular eighties prime-time television. After all, Miami Vice adapted the song Smuggler’s Blues as a tail of tragedy and betrayal. The eighties could be surprisingly earnest.
The problem is that Shepard never pitches it at that level. CHiPs never seems smart enough to be pulling that sort of long con. Certainly, there is never a sense that Shepard intends for the audience to take its villain as a wry meta-joke. After all, this is a film where the cops take an inordinate amount of time to realise that the nickname “L.T.” could be an abbreviation for “Lieutenant” rather than a set of initials. Similarly, a big deal is made of how an accident has rendered a corpse unidentifiable, for Jon to recognise him from a photo.
This dissonance renders some of the movie’s plot beats in surprisingly bad taste. Given the movie’s rating and its fascination with bodily functions, there is no surprise that CHiPs punctuates itself with short bouts of excessive violence played as physical comedy. Unfortunately, CHiPs is far too earnest to sell these beats as disaffected black comedy. Instead, dismemberment and collision are rendered as mean-spirited pranks inflicted by the film upon unsuspecting characters.
CHiPs is mess, a collision of mismatched idea from which nobody escapes unscathed.