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Mirthless motorcycles - ‘CHiPs’

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Film reboot of TV series a crass, unfunny comedy

I’m all for actors moving behind the camera. I think there have been a fair number of talented folks who have seen great success when venturing into “slash” territory – actor/director, actor/writer or even actor/writer/director. There can be value in one person having primary control on so many aspects of a film.

But it can also go wrong.

Dax Shepard seems like a good dude. He’s put together a nice little career considering he got his start as one of Ashton Kutcher’s pet instigators on MTV’s “Punk’d.” He’s a solid OK, but he’s not the guy you’d necessarily expect to get the full auteur, triple-threat treatment. And yet he did. So on what project did he expend this artistic capital, you ask?

Why, a film reboot of the late-70s/early 80s kitsch classic TV show “CHiPs,” of course.

This transparent effort at recreating the clever self-awareness of the recent “21 Jump Street” reboot stars Shepard as new officer Jon Baker and Michael Pena (“Collateral Beauty”) as Frank “Ponch” Poncherello.

Jon – a former X Games moto-superstar forced to retire due to injury - has joined the California Highway Patrol in a last-ditch effort to reignite his relationship with his disinterested wife Karen (Kristen Bell, TV’s “The Good Place”). Meanwhile, Ponch is actually an oversexed FBI agent who has been assigned to go undercover with the CHiPs crew in order to track down a vicious gang that has been robbing armored cars with deadly precision.

Of course, it’s an inside job (it’s ALWAYS an inside job). This time, it’s Lieutenant Ray Kurtz (played with legit gusto by Vincent D’Onofrio) who has assembled a group of crooked cops and other ne’er-do-wells in an effort to steal a bunch of money to … well, I’m not really sure. I think it’s to help his heroin-addicted son (Justin Chatwin, “Unleashed”), but that scheme – much like a lot of the film – never worries too much about making sense.

So it’s left to Jon and Ponch to unravel the mystery and catch Kurtz in the act, all the while knowing that the only ones they can truly trust … are each other.

Despite an at-times desperate desire to entertain, “CHiPs” never manages to transcend its juvenile baseline. It throws lame joke after lame joke at the wall, trying to make something stick. Anything, even lowest common denominator stuff, will do. Unfortunately, that’s pretty much all you get with this movie. Even the action can’t make up its mind, alternating between goofy and gruesome with no real rhyme or reason.

There’s a crassness at work here that seems a bit at odds with the weird innocence of the source material. Shepard’s script has turned Jon into a bland mannequin whose only defined characteristics are bad knees and the ability to ride motorcycles. Meanwhile, Ponch’s lechery has been dialed up to 11, leading to a number of “jokes” that play more as sad and borderline offensive than as funny. An interesting (or even coherent) narrative might have compensated for the try-hard humor and the shallow lead characters, but alas – there will be none of that on Dax Shepard’s watch.

(Note: This is somehow the SECOND TIME that someone has let Dax Shepard dabble in his Orson Welles fantasies. The first was 2012’s execrable “Hit and Run.” This movie is ever-so-slightly better than that one. And hey – incremental improvement is still improvement. At this rate, we can expect an excellent film from him sometime in the mid-2030s.)

Shepard is utterly forgettable as Jon. You’d think he’d have given himself more to do, but he’s just your basic dudebro with a couple of tics. He comes off as a placeholder, like someone said to hell with it and let a stand-in do the movie. Pena – who is far too good for this – is sleazy and off-putting as Ponch. The oversexualization of the character isn’t nearly as funny as Shepard seems to think it is; even though Pena gives it his all, it doesn’t work. I will admit, however, that there’s a solid buddy chemistry between the two; it makes one wish that they had showcased it in a better movie.

Vincent D’Onofrio simply does not know how to do anything other than commit fully, bless his heart. His take on Kurtz feels like it comes from a different film; he glowers and growls and gnaws at the scenery. It’s totally out of place, but it’s what he brings to the table and I love him for it. Outside of D’Onofrio, the supporting cast is generally meh, though it should be mentioned that Bell clearly loves her real-life husband a lot if she agreed to play such a one-dimensionally unlikeable character.

“CHiPs” makes a lot of mistakes, but perhaps the biggest - you know, other than giving Dax Shepard the keys - is trying to substitute crassness for cleverness. It’s a film that is perfectly content to travel the low road, but without any effort at elevation, resulting in a comedy built on boobs and F-bombs that ultimately just isn’t very funny.

[1 out of 5]

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