Some movies greatest contribution is to exist as examples of what not to do in movies. CHiPS, a reboot-of-sorts of the popular 70s-era TV show, has the unfortunate distinction of being one of those movies. This modern-day adaptation of the forty-year-old sitcom about California Highway Patrol officers proves motorcycles are not good vehicles to build an entire comedy around. That’s where CHiPS is uniquely bad. The rest of the movie is more conventionally bad with a lame plot, unfunny jokes, and poor technical execution all around.
Officer Jon Baker (Dax Shepard) and Officer Frank “Ponch” Poncherello (Michael Pena) play two misfit highway patrol officers paired together by unusual circumstances. Naturally, they don’t understand each other at first but following a series of complicated situations soon realize they’re not all that different after all. It doesn’t take much for the average moviegoer to recognize that standard simple plotline of the buddy-comedy genre. It’s hardly an original premise, but one that still works because audiences love seeing two actors develop a unique chemistry, relationship, and banter between one another. Every ticket buyer for CHiPS is paying money to laugh with Shepard and Pena sharing the screen together – and their motorcycles.
“Sharing the screen together” is really the problem: motorcycles don’t allow for Shepard and Pena to so much share the screen in the same frame when riding; they’re never in sync. The performances can’t build off each other. It’s not like a car, where the actors have some wiggle room to move around. Shepard and Pena can’t develop a chemistry riding motorcycles together, because they’re physically obligated to operate their respective hogs. Plus, they have helmets and sunglasses covering their entire faces, making it impossible to see their expressions. And motorcycles are noisy, so I don’t even buy they can even hear each other, as I have enough difficulty hearing them in the theater.
The only time motorcycles should be used for more than three-minutes in a comedy is for a well-executed chase scene involving intricate visual comedy (aka Buster Keaton). Nearly a third of this movie is on motorcycles, with much of this precious screen-time showcasing Shepard and Pena not sharing the screen together. When the inevitable chases ensue, and boy do they ensue, the chaotic visual style makes identifying the comedy even harder.
Sadly, the two-thirds of non-motorcycle sequences don’t work, either. The actors seem lost. The source of tension intended to make these situations funny never seems obvious for any of them. The setup spends too much time on its “find the stolen money and bad guy” plot, awkwardly placing its characters on having to solve the mystery. CHiPS would have been better had it focused more on the day-to-day goofiness of being a highway patrol officer.
CHiPS is also guilty of being in bad taste, probably unintentionally. Not that it’s trying to offend – or if even actually offensive – but it’s not edgy enough to take on what it’s trying to take on. The screenplay has plenty of topical scenes featuring divorce, sex obsession, homophobia, chronic physical pain, and opiate addiction. In comedy nothing should be off limits, but the film grazes over these serious issues with nothing resembling satire or some sarcastic edge, which only trivializes them. Bleak truths are never beaten into the audience because the film holds back it’s punches. The filmmakers (star Dax Shepard also writes and directs) may not lack empathy, but the film does. Now imagine discussing that last paragraph while riding a motorcycle. You probably wouldn’t be as engaged, now would you?