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Review: For Dax Shepard’s merrily idiotic ‘CHIPS,’ it’s the low way or the highway

‘CHiPS’
Michael Peña, left, as Ponch and Dax Shepard as Jon in “CHIPS.”
(Peter Iovino / Warner Bros.)
Film Critic

A subtle difference in capitalization — the only thing here that can be remotely described as subtle — separates “CHiPs” the amiable 1977-83 TV show from “CHIPS” the dunderheaded new buddy-cop movie starring Dax Shepard and Michael Peña.

But the all-caps title more or less captures the bigger, more blockheaded approach taken here by Shepard, who wrote and directed this merrily idiotic smash-up showcase in which cars crash into motorcycles, trucks plow into paparazzi and one guy’s face makes violent contact, as it must, with another guy’s junk.

That last gag is the sort of tiresome gay-panic gross-out moment that “CHIPS” tries to get away with by having its participants engage in deep discussions of what does and doesn’t constitute homophobia.

Serious philosophical questions are raised: Is discomfort the same thing as bigotry? Should an aversion to same-sex face-to-crotch proximity automatically be construed as homophobic? Can a movie be cheekily self-aware and still thoroughly terrible?

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Without a doubt. And yet damned if “CHIPS” doesn’t somehow make the most of its own wink-wink awfulness. Its principal ambition — basically, to make movies like “The Dukes of Hazzard” and “Starsky & Hutch” look like rigorous masterworks of screen-to-screen adaptation by comparison — may be as shallow as the gutter. But from time to time, the movie does throw off its own crazy, moronic verve.

Shepard plays Jon Baker, a former X-Games motocross star who has joined the California Highway Patrol to impress and win back his ex-wife (Kristen Bell, Shepard’s real-life spouse). His partner (Peña) goes by the alias of Francis Llewellyn “Ponch” Poncherello, which really was the name of Erik Estrada’s character on the show; here, it’s practically a dead giveaway that he’s really an undercover FBI agent trying to find out which crooked CHP officers are behind a series of armored-truck heists.

The dynamic between these two khaki-uniformed dudes is of the familiar oil-and-water variety. Ponch is an insatiable sex fiend, Baker an obsessive monogamist. Ponch wants to keep his head down so he can get on with his investigation; Baker insists on earning his CHP stripes and doing everything by the book.

Michael Peña as Ponch and Dax Shepard as Jon in “CHIPS.”
Michael Peña as Ponch and Dax Shepard as Jon in “CHIPS.”
(Peter Iovino / Warner Bros. Pictures / Ratpac-D)

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Ponch doesn’t want to be buddies; Baker can’t stop talking about his personal life and his weird hang-ups, like the smell of other people’s homes. (This character detail lays some crucial narrative groundwork for a discussion of proper sexual hygiene.) More important, from an action standpoint, Baker is an extremely skilled daredevil motorcycle racer, while Ponch can barely ride anything with wheels rather than legs.

This establishes a consistent pattern for the movie’s many high-speed chase sequences, most of which — whether they involve something as minor as a fender-bender or as excessively gruesome as a decapitation — are more nimbly shot and choreographed than they have any need to be.

I’m tempted to say I haven’t seen this city’s freeways, bridges and overall topography put to such busily inventive use since “La La Land,” but that was just five minutes ago (and that’s five minutes longer than you may remember “CHIPS”).

The streets of L.A. get a workout with Michael Peña, left, and Dax Shpeard in “CHIPS.”
The streets of L.A. get a workout with Michael Peña, left, and Dax Shpeard in “CHIPS.”
(Peter Iovino / Warner Bros. Pictures / Ratpac-D)

For Peña, this is his second buddy-cop role of the year, after the dirty detective he played in the British-made, New Mexico-set thriller-comedy “War on Everyone,” and he’s no less breezily irreverent here as a seasoned-but-sloppy investigator. Shepard, who brings to mind a less swattable Zach Braff, has his own offbeat charm: Touchingly open and earnest, but also physically tough and quick with a comeback, his Jon Baker is an eccentric comic creation, to say the least (and you sometimes wish he would).

The plot is needlessly convoluted and completely beside the point, the supporting cast a lazy grab bag of spare parts. Vincent D’Onofrio, as one of the CHP’s most imposing officers, shows up to bench press a few hundred pounds and warn Ponch and Baker not to get too nosy. Is he a good guy or a bad guy? (Is he played by Vincent D’Onofrio?)

In “CHIPS,” Dax Shepard’s Jon tries to win back his ex-wife, played by real-life wife Kristen Bell, above.
In “CHIPS,” Dax Shepard’s Jon tries to win back his ex-wife, played by real-life wife Kristen Bell, above.
(Peter Iovino / Warner Bros.)

You might wish the hard-working women of the CHP— this group includes Jane Kaczmarek, Maya Rudolph, Jessica McNamee and Rosa Salazar — had been given more to do than telegraph their varying degrees of emotional and sexual availability. You might also wish that Shepard, for all his cheerful indifference to the expectations of TV nostalgists, had done more than simply crank out “‘Dumb & Dumber’ on motorcycles,” in the expert formulation of Estrada’s former “CHiPs” costar, Larry Wilcox. TV’s Jon Baker hasn’t seen the movie yet but says he plans to rent it eventually. Sounds about right.

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‘CHIPS’

MPAA rating: R, for crude sexual content, graphic nudity, pervasive language, some violence and drug use

Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes

Playing: In general release

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justin.chang@latimes.com

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@JustinCChang

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