“Chips”, which for some reason didn’t stylize its title like the TV series did, is a throwback to buddy cop comedies that seemed to have petered out from their heyday in the 1980s. If I had to pinpoint when the genre ended, I’d probably say it was around the time of “Bad Boys II”, a film so gleefully over the top that I can’t help but enjoy it. There have of course been buddy cop comedies since 2003, but they’ve largely either been loving tributes to the genre (“Hot Fuzz”) or really crappy examples of it (“Cop Out”). The last generally successful one that comes to find is the “21 Jump Street” reboot, and even that was more of a satire of the show combined with a general slapstick comedy with some Judd Apatow-isms thrown in than a full fledged entry into the genre. That adaption of “Jump Street” probably paved the way for reboots of other old TV shows to start making their way to the big screen now as comedies, either parodic in nature or otherwise. Later this year we get “Baywatch”, and now we have “Chips”, which is more full fledged buddy cop comedy than parody of one.
Having never watched a single episode of the original TV series, which starred Erik Estrada, I can’t say to what extent the film is faithful or not. I was generally familiar with the concept that it followed two officers of the California Highway Patrol, or CHP (the “i” and “s” added to make a nice little word there), and the film is about that. One of our main characters are Frank Poncherello, or “Ponch”, though that’s just his undercover name. He’s an FBI agent played by the always likable Michael Pena who is assigned to go undercover with the CHP to find out which officers there are corrupt and a part of a series of armored car heists that have taken place. Ponch is also a sex addict, and most of the humor from this character is related to that trait.
The other main character is Jon Baker, played by Dax Shepard, who also wrote and directed this film. Baker is a former professional BMX rider who had to quit after multiple injuries. His wife (Kristen Bell, Shepard’s real life wife) and he are on the outs, with the wife clearly having sex with her fellow swimming instructor. Baker is oblivious to this, and thinks that if he becomes a cop he can win back his wife because her dad was a cop, and he heard that women like men who remind them of their father. Baker as a character isn’t an idiot in general, but he does have a giant blind spot where his wife is concerned. Anyway, Baker is allowed on the CHP simply because he’s great on a motorcycle and his superiors feel sorry for him.
We meet a number of other CHP officers, and the film makes no secret that our villain is a Ray Kurtz (Vincent D’Onofrio), whose motive for the heists seems to be so he can take his recovering addict son (Justin Chatwin) to Europe…or something. The point is he’s not particularly evil or bloodthirsty (he even makes a point, early on, to save a civilian bystandard’s life), but he’s willing to go to dark places if his family or his plan are threatened. I liked this aspect of the character, as too often bad guys in these movies are one dimensional evil, when in real life people who commit crimes like this usually think they are justified for one reason or another.
The plot doesn’t unfold in the tightest of manners. Twists to the story are telegraphed really early on, and if you’re looking for a good police procedural behind the comedic goofiness, this is not the film for that. Shepard’s talents do not include writing a tightly plotted mystery. That, however, is secondary, as the reason people are going to see this movie is in the hopes that it is funny, and I found myself laughed more often than I expected in this film.
Pena and Shepard have good chemistry together and their interplay works when they share the screen. There’s a bit of “The Odd Couple” in any buddy cop comedy, and Shepard’s character’s touchy-feeling, woke-from-couple’s-therapy attitude toward life plays off Pena’s more hard-ass, tough-guy-who-likes-promiscuous-sex character. When the movie transitions from them being at odds to being best friends it is rather abrupt, but the actors play off each other so well that they make it work in spite of itself.
For a directorial standpoint, the movie does what it needs to do. There’s some good shots obtained from cameras mounted to the motorcycles that bring a nice bit of urgency to the car chase scenes (no pointless CGI for the most part), and the comedic scenes are cut in a way that the timing enhances the jokes. Shepard directed two films prior to this, unseen by me, but “Chips” showcases that he’s a competent, if unspectacular, behind the camera talent. Shepard got his career start on “Punk’d”, the hidden camera show targetting celebrities headlined by Ashton Kutcher, and had had supporting roles in films ranging from middling (“Without a Paddle”) to very funny (“Idiocracy”). Still, he’s never had a role that made me think he had the makings of a great comedic talent. “Chips” doesn’t do that either, but as one of two leads he is likable and charming in the right place, and you enjoy watching his character. Pena is bigger comedic talent, but its to Shepard’s credit that Pena doesn’t completely steal the show from Shepard, but rather enhances his costar’s humor and screen presence.
It’s hard to talk about why a comedy works without spoiling the best gags, so I won’t do so here. I will say one of my favorites involved the cops chasing down a speeder while a song you wouldn’t associate with a highspeed chase blares on the soundtrack. While I was never doubled over in gut-busting laughter, I laughed at more jokes than I didn’t, and I smiled and overall had a fun time at the movie.
“Chips” doesn’t do anything new with regard to the genre, but it has enough laughs and charm to make it worth seeing if you’re a fan of buddy cop films. Color me surprised, but the film was better than I expected. B-