Hollywood hasn’t yet caught up with the moral panic of the past year and a half, so a movie such as CHiPs — a theatrical version of the 1977–1983 TV series about the California Highway Patrol — reflects the general mindlessness of mainstream entertainment. But CHiPs still has political content; its vacuousness is consistent with the anecdotes and social rules regularly offered in TV product that placates viewers between commercial spots. The political pacification continues even while the movie turns the old series’ comforting morality on its head.
This flip into R-rated raunch is also Hollywood convention. The gimmicky heroes of CHiPs, Officers Jon Baker (Dax Shepard) and Frank “Ponch” Poncherello (Michael Peña), still ride motorcycles patrolling the Los Angeles streets, highways, and outlying areas, but this time the cops are as idiosyncratic as the cranky drivers and criminals they monitor. Shepard’s Baker, a former X-Games biker who becomes a cop after his youthful career crashes, and Peña’s Ponch, a semi-rogue FBI agent, are teamed up and sent to apprehend a crime ring inside the force.
CHiPs is mostly interesting for its update of cop lore. The comic approach of writer, director, co-star Shepard takes the TV series’ cult figures no more seriously than its references to infamous California police incidents, from the Rodney King video to the O. J. Simpson highway chase to the late-1990s Rampart scandal. Yet it’s impossible to watch CHiPs without also thinking about Hollywood’s treatment of California policing — whether in those mid-20th-century films noirs, the 1970s socially conscious exposés (like the movies based on former cop Joseph Wambaugh’s semi-autobiographical novels), or the endless, cheaply produced TV cop shows that featured Los Angeles itself as a fictionalized supporting character. The L.A. cop show capitalized on the fodder at hand in a company town.
Cop movies are not necessarily progressive or conservative as a genre, although the ’70s law-and-order trend (such as Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry series) suggested the latter. Reliance on the genre’s popularity — as a modernized version of the Western that updated urban social history and mythology — always demonstrates the film industry’s political ambivalence. (After all, who’s going to protect those fantastic million-dollar homes?) But the genre also brings out the inner-city audience’s ambivalence — both fascination and disdain vis-à-vis authority figures who walk the line as either public servant or public menace.
CHiPs doesn’t reflect the anti-cop hysteria recently fomented by the news media, which is ironic, considering that this era of cultural panic is partly a creation of the unholy blur between TV networks’ “news” and “entertainment” departments. If CHiPs were more than a dirty-minded action-comedy, it would dramatize the contemporary purgatory of law-vs.-chaos, and perhaps provide better understanding of what has infected our everyday political discourse. Instead, Shepard and a crew of almost 150 stunt performers stage new versions of Keystone Kops chase-and-explosion scenes through such L.A. locales as the Fourth Street Bridge, Shoreline Drive, and the National Forest’s Devil’s Punch Bowl. They waste the opportunity to make social realism express the modern condition — which was thrilling when Peter Hyams made his 1975 L.A. cop movie Busting.
Could the erratic events and characterizations in CHiPs also indicate Hollywood’s cowardice about making heroes of police in this politically panicked moment?
The armored-car robberies conducted by an inside group of CHiPs officers (led by Vincent D’Onofrio, lending gravitas to a sketchy subplot) steamroll over the story’s moral conflicts (“I’m making a hole,” D’Onofrio shouts behind the wheel of a SWAT tank). The dirty jokes and farcical mishaps in CHiPs include that hoary device of the profane, apoplectic black police chief (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) from Beverly Hills Cop and 48 Hrs. It still gets laughs, but it prevents insight into the complex motivations behind corruption — which make cops a reflection of our own humanity, as Robert Aldrich showed in his expressionist 1977 film of Wambaugh’s The Choirboys.
Could the erratic events and characterizations in CHiPs also indicate Hollywood’s cowardice about making heroes of police in this politically panicked moment? Plot logic comes and goes so that nothing develops from D’Onofrio’s intense declaration of “I’m Law, motherf***er! The old kind!” or its opposite, Peña’s soulful, comic slow-burn when indicating Ponch’s secret nerve and mischievous thoughts. There’s richness to these two performances as well as the tragedy of superb actors trapped in crap.
In CHiPs’s best moment, Baker reminds Ponch: “You save people! That’s what a person does, especially an officer of the law.” That “especially” clause resounds: It’s what audiences take comfort hearing whether or not they trust it, even if Hollywood doesn’t always believe in it. During our national moment of ongoing panic, that reminder extends from the beat cop to the Congress.