The randy action-comedy “CHiPS” is pitched to the 18-24 demographic, but that audience is probably wondering what this California Highway Patrol movie is all about. Two words: Erik Estrada. He was the ultimate late-1970s small-screen sex symbol, and people were really into his hair.
Who knew that a TV show about a pair of cool motorcycle riding cops and their antics in the SoCal sunshine would have such staying power? The series, which went off the air 34 years ago, has been reconfigured by writer/director/star Dax Shepard for the big screen. He delivers a film that simmers with a rambunctious and insouciant energy, one that will have you chuckling in spite of yourself.
Shepard plays Jon Baker, a former motocross athlete who has joined the CHP in an attempt to win back his wife (Kristen Bell). Studded with scars from his physical and emotional injuries, he gobbles pain pills, and rainy weather paralyzes him. If anything, Shepherd gives his character too many issues, and they pay off in punchlines rather than story moments.
Though Jon may be riddled with quirks, the swaggering, uber-macho Ponch (Michael Peña) draws our focus. This might be a buddy comedy, but Peña is the star of the show. His Ponch is a maverick undercover FBI agent with two flaws: He’s a sex addict, and he keeps shooting his partner (Adam Brody).
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There’s an ease to Peña’s performance, which balances Shepard’s more off-the-wall character. The movie is most fun when they’re together. Peña also gets to be a sex symbol, just like Estrada’s Ponch, and Peña pulls it off in spades.
The jokes, dirty and inappropriate, are thoughtfully played. Ponch’s deep aversion to touching a semi- or fully naked Jon is examined through a series of questions about whether that’s homophobic. A discussion about a unique sex act might make you blush, but it becomes more about the evolving cultural norms about sex.
The plot, about an inside job heist, doesn’t matter much. It’s simply the context and setting to put these two guys together and watch them become bros.
“CHiPS” has about as much nutritional cinematic value as the potato variety. It’s also yet another example of Hollywood’s troubling tendency toward trying to turn retro intellectual property into box office gold. But Peña’s star turn and Shepherd’s comic touch make this light comedy worth a watch.
At the movies
Rated R for crude sexual content, graphic nudity, pervasive language, some violence and drug use. 1:40. Fayette, Frankfort, Hamburg, Nicholasville, Richmond.