Let’s be clear. Any attempt to adapt a television series for the big screen is inherently an effort to wring an influx of cash out of an often-dormant property, leveraging name recognition in the hopes that it will translate into solid box office. Rarely is such a move inspired by any real necessity or sharp creative vision, and perhaps this overt disinterest in reviving a beloved show with an infusion of fresh ideas is why we have far more films like Bewitched and Lost in Space and far fewer like Mission: Impossible and The Addams Family, both of which reinvigorated their respective franchises decades after the shows went off the air.
One approach that filmmakers have routinely taken in recent years is to apply a comedic lens to properties like Starsky and Hutch and 21 Jump Street. CHIPS – the latest film based on a popular TV series – takes a similar route. The original series may have incorporated some light, character-based humor into its weekly plotlines, but the film adaptation takes this much further, rejiggering the 1977-1983 NBC drama as a buddy action comedy in very much the same vein as 21 Jump Street. However, while it aims for a similarly absurd tone as that film, CHIPS ends up feeling more like a second-rate Lethal Weapon knockoff.
The film marks the third directorial effort for Dax Shepard, who also wrote the screenplay and stars as rookie California Highway Patrol officer Jon Baker. Dealing with a slew of chronic injuries and an ailing marriage, Baker winds up partnered with Frank “Ponch” Poncherello (Michael Peña), an FBI agent who has infiltrated the CHP to flush out a band of corrupt cops. Along the way, hilarity (presumably) ensues, and the pair overcome their differences to pursue the truth and solve the case together. That’s the plot in a nutshell, but CHIPS throws in a a parade of running gags and a steady stream of crass humor to keep audiences from realizing that the film brings little new to either the buddy cop genre or the concept of how to adapt a TV show to film in general.
The movie’s over-reliance on jokes centering on addiction, homophobia and specific sex acts – the last of which even serves as the film’s final gag, for some reason – could have worked if CHIPS had recognized just how outdated its sensibility really is. With all the trappings of an early-1990s guilty pleasure, CHIPS might have been more successful if it had leaned into being a parody of this era of buddy cop films or provide some biting social commentary about it all. Alas, the film isn’t self-aware or smart enough to bring that all together, and instead, audiences are left with a hodgepodge of clichés and cameos that ultimately don’t amount to much more than a wholly forgettable trip to the theater. Crass doesn’t necessarily equal funny, a truth that CHIPS fails to understand from the start.
Hands down, Peña is the best thing in the film. Fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe will recall that the actor was one of the standout elements in the studio’s Ant-Man a couple years back, and he brings a similar energy and charisma to Ponch. Though Shepard does his signature good-hearted doofus routine well, CHIPS wisely leaves most of the heavy lifting on Peña’s shoulders. Even when viewers can see the punchline coming a mile away (which is often), the actor manages to elevate the moment and make the most of each setup. Sadly, gifted performers like Vincent D’Onofrio, Kristen Bell (Shepard’s real-life and onscreen wife here) and Jane Kaczmarek don’t fare as well, saddled as they are with one-note characters and limited opportunity to develop them.
In the end, CHIPS functions as a kind of origin story for the close-knit partners Baker and Ponch would eventually become on the series. Shepard and Peña – both of whom also produce the film, along with the show’s creator Rick Rosner – clearly hope that this will grow into a franchise, but despite a willing cast, the script is far too formulaic to make much of a lasting impression. As a crass cop comedy, CHIPS isn’t distinctive or funny enough to become a cult classic like Super Troopers. Moreover, the film doesn’t offer a decisive vision of its source material that will appeal to either those who hold the show dear or younger moviegoers who may not realize this is an adaptation in the first place. Likely, viewers will stumble out of the darkened theaters wondering who exactly CHIPS was made for anyway, a question the film itself doesn’t seem to have an answer to.
A blatant attempt to apply the winning 21 Jump Street formula to another television property, CHIPS instead winds up a standard hard-R action comedy that audiences will probably forget by the time they leave the theater.