Film

Mid-Life Crisis And Male Intimacy: Let’s Break Down The Badness Of ‘CHIPS’

Who asked for this?

Something feels ill-timed about this trip back to the well of Gen-X TV nostalgia. At least back in the mid-2000s, cheesy 1970s action shows including Starsky and Hutch and The Dukes of Hazzard were still within their audiences’ living memory. But who wanted this now?

The target audience for CHIPS might not have even been born when the TV show CHiPs was following the stunt-tastic adventures of motorcycle highway patrolmen Frank ‘Ponch’ Poncherello (Erik Estrada) and Jonathan ‘Jon’ Baker (Larry Wilcox). Maybe the success of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s unexpectedly entertaining 21 Jump Street films rescued CHIPS (but not the TV show’s idiosyncratic capitalisation).

Now, Dax Shepard writes, directs and steps in as Jon, with Michael Peña as Ponch. I get a vibe that for Shepard, a serious motorbike enthusiast who does most of his own stunts here, CHiPs may have been a fond and formative childhood memory. And the reboot underlines the fact that 41-year-old Peña and 42-year-old Shepard are both a bit too old for this shit.

Like a Gen-Xer trying to go toe-to-toe with the millennials on Twitter, CHIPS has an uneasy bravado. It’s clearly struggling to be what it presumes its audience wants — bawdy, violent, yet socially aware. But it fails because it lacks any real spark — the kind of sincere commitment to a stupid premise that made Central Intelligence and Bad Neighbours 2 such unexpected treats.

Freaking Out About Men’s Bodies

Although CHIPS is indisputably poor on the level of plot, dialogue and general funniness, it’s worth taking a closer look at its anxious fixation on men’s bodies — which is more complex than the excruciatingly homophobic trailer had suggested. It’s about the male body in crisis: a body that seeks physical intimacy in the ‘wrong’ ways, and is subject to deadly and disabling injuries that the film depicts with disquieting nonchalance.

In disgrace for shooting his partner (Adam Brody), a hotheaded FBI agent is sent undercover to the California Highway Patrol, using the alias Francis Llewellyn Poncherello, to determine which CHP insiders are pulling off a string of daring armoured-truck robberies. Meanwhile, retired motocross champion Jon Baker is trying to woo back his estranged wife Karen (Shepard’s real-life wife Kristen Bell) by retraining as a cop. He’s hopeless at every aspect of policing apart from badass motorbike riding.

The film contrasts these two ‘mismatched buddies’ primarily in terms of their attitudes to sex and their bodies. Ponch, who has a fastidious personal grooming regime and is constantly picking up women. He’s visibly paranoid about physical intimacy with other men, yet urgently denies he’s homophobic. Meanwhile, slobbish Jon is comfortable with nudity and touching, but bewildered by the notion of analingus, and so naïve he fails to see that Karen has definitely moved on.

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Slightly more full-on than the original.

Shepard is amplifying the traits of the TV characters not just for effect, but also as a kind of comedic arms race: a way to hyperbolically heighten what was cool in the ’70s in line with what he imagines is edgy and funny today. In the TV show, Estrada had portrayed Ponch as a macho ladies’ man. But Peña’s Ponch is a sad sex addict: he masturbates compulsively, can’t control himself around women in yoga pants, and can’t make it through an evening alone without sexting.

Meanwhile, the TV actor Wilcox had played Jon as a strait-laced Vietnam veteran. But Shepard’s Jon is a flaky free spirit whose only war was the X Games — which has left him with a scarred and copiously medicated body. Jon’s efforts to save his marriage have also taught him to speak in psychobabble such as ‘closure’ and ‘deflecting’. “It’s like you’re three beers too intimate,” Ponch tells him.

The film wastes no time revealing that the robbery mastermind is the thuggish and not especially subtly named CPS Lieutenant Kurtz (Vincent D’Onofrio) — whose villainy also stems from personal crisis. There’s a weird, resonant scene in which Ponch and Jon confront Kurtz at the gym, and the grizzled older man turns aggressive in a way the younger men liken to a “silverback”.

Jon’s isn’t the only male body shown in the midst of breaking down — there are some flashes of incongruously gory violence, including one character getting beheaded and another having several fingers shot off. Even the film’s uncomfortable depiction of women — a gaze that shifts between leering, bewildered, repulsed and resentful — is really about men’s insecurities and hypocrisies.

Freaking Out About Men’s Buddies

The other thing that surprised me about CHIPS was that I didn’t mind Dax Shepard in it, because I’ve never found him charming or amusing. I first encountered him playing an obnoxious creep in the dreadful romcom When in Rome (which starred his future wife Bell); and 2012’s Hit and Run, which Shepard wrote and co-directed, is diabolically unfunny.

Comedy doesn’t need to be charming. One of Shepard’s breakout roles was as an awful moron in Mike Judge’s Idiocracy, and Peña was wonderfully anarchic in Jody Hill’s black-hearted Observe and Report. But CHIPS isn’t nasty enough to qualify as enjoyably misanthropic, and it doesn’t humanise its characters enough to make you care about them. Instead it ticks off the tropes of the buddy-cop action-comedy genre in an extremely desultory way.

Shepard has a loose way with the action scenes — there’s a fair bit of point-of-view handlebar-cam — that’s neither very spectacular nor very inventive. And he finds the comedy in idle banter, anxious dick jokes, and a gross-out running gag about strong scents in people’s homes. The scene in which Jon and Ponch repeatedly trade the phrase “eat your ass” — Jon with dismay, Ponch with quiet relish — could be a textbook example of the sloppy improv that passes for screenwriting in so many Hollywood studio comedies.

It made me long for an action movie with a script, man! The sardonic writing of Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, The Long Kiss Goodnight, The Nice Guys), or the cartoonish bombast of pun king Steven E de Souza (Commando, Die Hard, The Running Man). Or even the work of longtime Fast and Furious screenwriter Chris Morgan, whose dialogue Dwayne Johnson cooks up so deliciously you can smell it.

At the heart of the buddy movie is the earnest idea that the buddies are complementary: that their contrasting skills and personalities not only make them a better crime-fighting team, but also enable them to improve each other. Really funny buddy movies, like The Other Guys and The Heat, take the piss out of the earnestness of the genre itself.

Instead, CHIPS takes its buddyness for granted, treating Ponch and Jon’s relationship in a rote way that means you walk out of the cinema going, “Well, that was a thing I just saw”. At best, it’s an odd and perhaps accidental portrait of two men at low points in their lives.

CHIPS is in cinemas now.

Mel Campbell is a freelance journalist and cultural critic. She blogs on style, history and culture at Footpath Zeitgeist and tweets at @incrediblemelk.