Certain movies attract hostile attention even before they open, particularly movies that concern religion, or politics, or revisionist history.
Dax Shepard’s revamp of the 1977-83 NBC police show, which opens Friday, got abuse from the get-go — from the show’s original co-star Larry Wilcox, from less-than-temperate fans on Twitter (“PURE TRASH!”) and from others who thought Shepard wasn’t going to pay proper respect to the television drama.
They had no idea.
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“To me, it was a way to sneak one in under the radar,” Shepard said, “basically do a really offbeat movie, but do it under the umbrella of a global property so the studio would let me make it.”
In other words, the movie he made — an eccentric, funny and irreverent comedy — would never have been greenlit without the ruse of being a remake. “Especially for them to take a leap of faith and let me direct and write and be in it and all that,” he said. “They needed some air cover, for sure.”
Shepard plays the perpetually discombobulated Jon Baker, a former motorcycle stunt driver who, after a number of accidents and 23 surgeries, decides to enter the California Highway Patrol academy and become a uniformed motorcycle cop. Michael Peña plays an FBI agent who joins the CHiP undercover, gets partnered with the unsuspecting Jon and is given the alias Francis Poncherello — or Ponch, the handle of Erik Estrada’s character in the original series.
Among the rumors going around was that Estrada, who has a cameo in the film, was upset with Shepard’s movie. “Yeah, it’s not a spoiler anymore,” Shepard said, “but when we heard these stories we had to come out and say, ‘He’s not upset with the movie. He’s in the movie.’”
The story involves Ponch infiltrating CHiP to investigate a rogue operation led by Vic Brown (Vincent d'Onofrio) and a contingent of fellow criminal officers. The efforts of Jon and Ponch to crack the case follow some predictable tangents of ineptitude, slapstick and violence — the injuries suffered by some of the characters are surprisingly serious. (Ponch loses some fingers, for instance; another character loses a head.) Less predictable are the personalities of Jon and Ponch and their contemporary concerns about grooming, sex and, by the way, criminal investigations.
“I think the traditional archetypes of a buddy cop movie are one guy who’s straight-faced, and the other who’s a loose cannon,” Shepard said. “But I thought it would be more fun if the dynamic in this movie was more the male and female perspective.”
His character has emotional intelligence, he said; Pena’s character has logical intelligence. “So you’re more or less hearing a man and a woman fight for most of the movie,” Shepard said. “When they argue, they’re both making stellar points. They’re just arguing on two different planes.”
The actor-director, a motor-sports enthusiast, is married to actress Kristen Bell, who plays Jon Baker’s soon-to-be ex-wife in the film; together they have two daughters and have campaigned against the practice of publishing photos of celebrities’ children. Knowing that makes one scene in the film particularly tart, when a few camera people get creamed during a motorcycle chase. (“It’s paparazzi,” someone reports. “It’s fine.”)
“When I was writing these set pieces I knew I only had $25 million dollars, so I wasn’t going to be doing ‘Fast and Furious’-level stuff. I thought, ‘There has to be a really good dose of comedy within all the action,' so it gets into this rhythm: stunt, stunt, joke; stunt, stunt, joke,” Shepard said.
“Then I started asking myself, ‘Well, who would it be fun to see get mowed over? You don’t want to feel bad for anyone.’ So I said, ‘Well, I can’t stand to see anyone with selfie sticks — that seems safe. And who would care if paparazzi got run over?' And I just went through the list of people no one would care about getting hit.
“I think at the L.A. screening, they clapped when the paparazzi got run over.”
The inevitable question is whether Shepard and company are going to continue their motorcycle ride down Non-Remake Highway. “From your lips to God’s ears,” he said. “I would like nothing more than to make more of these. It was like a 45-day-long birthday party.”
Will Ponch have his fingers? “Well, he did have them in a bag in the ambulance,” Shepard said, referring to one scene in the film. “Believe me, I thought of that. I didn’t want to deal with prosthetics the whole sequel.”
At the movies
Not reviewed. Rated R for crude sexual content, graphic nudity, pervasive language, some violence and drug use. 1:40. Fayette, Frankfort, Hamburg, Nicholasville, Richmond.