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Guess what? Dax Shepard's 'CHiPs' is better than it looks

The thoroughly unnecessary movie of an old show kids don't know exists is more likable than funny.
CHiPs

Michael Pena and Dax Shepard take over for Erik Estrada and Larry Wilcox in "CHiPs

‘CHiPs’
Director:
Dax Shepard
Stars: Dax Shepard, Michael Pena
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

Can you recommend a movie that, more or less objectively, isn’t very good? That is spotty on laughs and sloppy when it comes to tone, story and especially when it tries to be an “action-comedy”? It would be easy to write off “CHiPs,” a dirty, gross-out, thoroughly unnecessary reboot of a once-iconic ’70s cop show no millennial knows ever existed. All you have to do is point to any number of failed gags and set pieces, first and foremost a dire bit involving Michael Pena trying to tend to a naked Dax Shepard and accidentally smashing his face into his crotch.

But the majority of “CHiPs” isn’t like that. It’s not a programmatic studio comedy, giving us what it thinks audiences want. It gives us what its maker and co-star, Dax Shepard, wants to give us. It has almost nothing to do with the original program, beyond two strapping California Highway Patrolmen, suave Ponch (Michael Pena) and fearless/kinda dumb Jon Baker (Shepard), steering around on police cruisers. Still, you get the sense that Shepard — unlike the makers of the new “Power Rangers” movie — genuinely likes the show he’s adapting. That doesn’t sound like high praise, but it makes a difference.

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The plot is dumb — so dumb it could have been on an episode of “CHiPs”: There’s some crooked cops (led by a legit menacing Vincent D’Onofrio) ripping off armored trucks, and they must be stopped. Sometimes “CHiPs,” weirdly, plays things a little too straight, but in a way that winds up being endearing. As a comedy director, Shepard isn’t always looking for a gag, and when he is he doesn’t always give us what we expect. The jokes, though often blue, tend to be built around character, and the biggest laughs come out of nowhere. (You probably didn’t go to see a “CHiPs” movie to hear Michael Pena rhapsodize on the joys of pooping, or expect that that would actually be pretty amusing.) Even when it goes for the easy yuk, “CHiPs” doesn’t hit it at the usual angle. Here’s a movie with stupid gay panic jokes that include lengthy debates about homophobia.

Shepard makes "CHiPs" his, throwing in asides about Arby's, Toto (again) and Seven Mary Three. It gets better as it goes along, and by the end it’s more likable than funny — about as likable as Shepard himself, always a bit of a weirdo outlier in the comedy scene. That’s not the same as saying he’s great, but with "CHiPs" he's made a corporate cash-cow that actually feels like it was made by a human being.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
 
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