CHIPS. Dax Shepard, Michael Peña, Rosa Salazar, Vincent D’Onofrio, Kristen Bell, Adam Brody, Jessica McNamee. Directed by Dax Shepard. 101 minutes. Rated MA15+ (Strong violence and coarse language).
I desperately wanted to like ‘CHiPs’, I really did. I’ve never come across the 40-year-old show of the same name upon which it was based, but an unfamiliarity with the source material has never been a problem for me in the past. For ’21 Jump Street’ and its sequel (the success of which ‘CHiPs’ was almost certainly hoping to replicate), unfamiliarity may have been of benefit to its audience, as the ludicrous premise transferred from the original show was the butt of many jokes. I guess that I wanted to enjoy the film because writer, director and star, Dax Shepard, comes across as such a charming, likable guy. In interviews and other movies, he’s great. His home life with wife, actress Kristen Bell (who plays his not so nice wife in the film), is picture perfect. As a writer and director though, he’s spotty with tone and ultimately light on the humour. Begrudgingly negative reviews are often the hardest to write, but I’ll give it my best.
The film pairs two newbies in the California Highway Patrol together. The ‘rookiest’ (to coin a term) is Jon Baker (Dax Shepard), a former X-Games motorcycle phenom whose scarred body is held together by countless surgeries (including the insertion of a titanium humerus) and a thorough regiment of analgesics. Baker joined the CHP hoping to revive his failing marriage to Karen (Kristen Bell), who has evidently (to everyone but Jon) moved on. His partner is Francis Llewelyn Poncherello (Michael Peña), an undercover FBI agent searching for dirty cops inside the CHP. Ponch is in some strife with the Bureau, after shooting a perp through his partner Clay (Adam Brody), and not for the first time.
The dirty cops that Ponch is hunting have been pulling heists on armoured trucks around LA, and their most recent job resulted in the death of a CHP helicopter pilot (a brutal scene that will for me endure as the film’s legacy). ‘CHiPs’ focuses somewhat on the procedural aspect of Ponch’s investigation, but the identity of the criminals is made clear to the audience very early. As villains go, they’re uninspired. Their leader, Ray Kurtz (Vincent D’Onofrio), never has a stable or especially clear motivation for his felonious plan (I can confidently say though, that it always has something to do with his heroin-addicted son), plus there is an odd attempt to humanise him midway through the piece (I can confirm again that this has something to do with his son).
At first, Baker and Ponch clash, as the former is trying to make a good first impression on the force and issue handfuls of infringement notices, while the latter is more concerned with his (secret) ongoing investigation in Kurtz’s crew. They bicker constantly, and the chemistry between Shepard and Peña is terrific fun and easily the film’s highlight. Moving away from the jock-brain dynamic of the Jenko-Schmidt pairing of ‘Jump Street’, theirs is far more adult, with plenty of their jokes stemming from Ponch’s uncomfortableness around physical contact in their all-male locker room and his undiagnosed nymphomania, involving a weakness for women in yoga pants. Since his very funny role in ‘Ant-Man’, Peña’s gift for comedy has been brought to audiences’ attention, and he delivers on that promise again. Shepard’s Baker is a more inconsistent character (staggering from joint pain brought on by rain one moment – ‘I could never live in Seattle’ – and an action hero the next), but he is undoubtedly likable.
Elsewhere though, the laughs are sparse. None of the other performers make much of an impact, and Shepard grounds many of the one-liners in sequences featuring graphic violence (severed heads and fingers make cameos), which sours their enjoyment. Ultraviolence and laughs can work together (see ‘Kingsman’ or ‘The Cabin in the Woods’), but here they never flow into one another. The violence is presented as realistic violence, then a joke may follow. There’s no complementary relationship, where one lifts the other or undercuts the other; they just happen side by side. There are moments that you want to laugh, but there’s a character lying on the ground after being shot in the same frame. It doesn’t gel.
Besides the charming chemistry of the leading duo, there is another light in the darkness. Shepard, a self-professed bike nut, mounts most of the vehicular action for real (Shepard also performs much of his own stunt work). There’s a certain thrill to be had from seeing enormous fireballs erupting over LA overpasses, and the bike-mounted shots have a very tangible and thrilling sense of speed. When the cameras are backwards facing, highlighting the rider, the way the bikes move and swerve tells you that this is no VFX deception. These actors, particularly Shepard, were on these bikes, unsupported and zipping between cars down the freeway. Unfortunately, there is a certain disconnect to the action scenes, as though each stunt or beat take place in a different place. It’s enough to make you think ‘cool!’, but not enough to grip you for the sequences’ duration.
Shepard’s passion for and commitment to the material is undeniable – he just can’t convert that passion into results. It comes down to tone, and here it’s woefully uneven. I don’t deny his ability (anyone who pitches Michael Peña in a comedy ensemble can’t be talentless), but I think that he just bit off more than he could chew. The triple threat writer-director-star should chip a few of those titles away, and dedicate his focus to one.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out April 6.