Movie Review: Pena and Shepard go for goofy and gory when the “Chips” are down

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The only way to approach that ’70s TV series “ChiPs” as a movie was as a goof, so at least Dax Shepard’s riff on it had the right idea.

This is “The Brady Bunch” on bikes, with blood and guts and gunplay and sex addiction and the language of mental health counseling kneaded into the “relationships” shown on screen. It’s R-rated, giving a “Hangover” hook to potential moviegoers who remember the mild-mannered, toothy TV series, endlessly re-run on cable.

Michael Peña is game for taking on Erik Estrada’s iconic role, as “Ponch” Poncherello.

And Shepard, a real gearhead (See his “Hit and Run” for proof), is at home on a motorcycle and knows how to shoot and edit a chase on wheels.

But “CHIPS” has a sourness about it from its graphic violence, and a clunky way with its gags. A telling example? The motorcycle cops Ponch and Jon (Shepard) chase down a speeding scofflaw in a Ferrari.

He’s played by Hollywood’s Green Car poster boy Ed Begley, Jr. Nothing is made of that. They let him play “himself” in a gas-guzzling/polluting and pricey sports car, there’s a joke. Without that? Nada.

Peña is a Miami FBI agent re-assigned to LA, undercover to help nail rogue cops who are running a bike-riding armored car theft ring. This agent is a trigger happy sex addict, something his rageaholic boss (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.) is all too happy to point out.

Shepard is “the oldest rookie” in California Highway Patrol (CHP, “CHiPs”) history, an amiable goofball who has aged out of the motocross/X-Games stardom that broke and re-broke his body and ended his marriage (to Shepard’s real-life wife, Kristen Bell).

Jon Baker can’t shoot straight, shares entirely too much personal information with everybody he meets (“You’re three-beers too intimate!”), but he can ride a bike “like a mother—–r.” Which is the only thing he has on his new “partner,” Francis Llewelyn Poncherello.

The dirty cops are killing each other over these heists as Ponch and Baker haphazardly investigate and reluctantly bond their way to glory.

Shepard, who wrote and directed this, struggles to find laughs in the language of self-help, with Baker poking Ponch for his sexual problems and “deflecting” way of dealing with them. He and Peña are likable enough, on their own, but they don’t click as a couple.

The ways Shepard tries to write-around Ponch’s delusional “sex symbol” shtick don’t click. Wasting Maya Rudolph as Baker’s police academy examiner doesn’t pay dividends.

The one nod to the ’70s origins of the project is the soundtrack, with Toto, Supertramp, Nazareth and The O’Jays played for (barely) comic effect.

The violence is “Oh no they didn’t” over-the-top, funny only up to a point.

And the heavy (Vincent D’Onofrio) seems to be parked in a different movie.

But the bike chases are crisp and cleverly-cut together — cameras on the handlebars or attached to the chassis, Shepard obviously on the bike in all but the most difficult stunts.

It’s coherent enough to suggest competence, but Shepard plainly would have been better served sending the script out for doctoring, or contenting himself with acting and maybe second-unit (action sequence) directing.

1half-star

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

Cast: Michael Peña, Dax Shepard, Vincent D’Onofrio, Kristen Bell, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Jane Kazmarek, Maya Rudolph

Credits:Written and directed by Dax Shepard. A Warner Brothers release.

Running time: 1:40

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