Some may say that Hollywood is running out of ideas. In fact, many do say it’s operating on a nearly empty tank of original imagination with the seemingly endless stream of sequels, prequels and reboots that studios crank out every year with the streamlined efficiency of an early Ford assembly line.
But when you run out of established cinematic franchises to plunder, where are you to turn for a shot at maintaining box office relevance? The answer to that predicament is the smaller, flashing screen you look at when you’re not at the movie theater.
Transplanting TV shows onto the big screen is nothing new, especially with feature length films being made as extensions of popular series like “The Jetsons,” “Firefly” and “The Simpsons,” to name a few. But the 1990s brought about a novel phenomenon: adapting popular television shows into movies that would parody their source material. These films were mostly made out of programs from the 1960s, which were just begging to be mocked, given the cheesiness and camp and as a result, we got passable outings like 1994’s “The Flintstones” to downright bizarre ones like “The Brady Bunch Movie” a year later. The decade was wrought with them (“The Beverly Hillbillies,” “McHale’s Navy,” “A Very Brady Sequel”) and even bled into the 2000s with “Bewitched.”
And yet, these were comedic adaptations of comedic shows; no new trails were being blazed.
What if you took a dramatic, over-the-top show from back in the day and retrofit it as a comedy for moviegoers? To do this, Hollywood turned its sights (“Mission: Impossible” notwithstanding) from the ’60s to the treasure trove of campy shows from the ’70s and ’80s. “Starsky and Hutch” (2004) and “The A-Team” (2010) come to mind, but they were both box office and critical failures. Nevertheless, everything changed in 2012 with a little movie called “21 Jump Street” that got the drama-to-comedy formula just right and paved the way for others to try their hands at replicating its success.
The latest to attempt to turn TV history into box office gold is “CHiPs,” a surprising laugh-out-loud R-rated comedy that, while following in a similar vein of “Jump Street,” also ups the ante on the entire trend of turning shows into movies.
Based on the dramatic series of the same name (about motorcycle-riding California Highway policemen that made a star out of Eric Estrada and ran from 1977 to 1983), “CHiPs” was written and directed by Dax Shepard (“Idiocracy,” “Let’s Go To Jail”) who also stars in it and doesn’t waste any time getting to the punchlines. “The California Highway Patrol does not endorse this movie … at all,” says the cheeky opening title card. Still, that doesn’t mean it totally disavowed the movie.
“In all honesty, they were very, very helpful,” Shepard told The Triangle during a particularly entertaining press conference in Philadelphia. “I had many many meetings with the CHP and I would keep passing the levels like a video game. It’d go so well, then they’d then fly someone someone even higher up down to [Los Angeles] and I’d meet with that person and then by the end of it, I was meeting with the very head of the CHP and they said, ‘Look, we know you’re gonna make this movie with or without us. We’d like to be helpful. We can’t publicly endorse it, it’s an R-rated comedy.’ [But], they were helpful — we got to shoot at CHP Central, which was what they used on the TV show so that was an important location we got. We had them shutting down roads with us, we had a liaison. So we had a great, great relationship with them.”
“CHiPs,” like the show it was based on, centers around the partnership of Jon Baker and Frank “Ponch” Poncherello who were played by Larry Wilcox and Erik Estrada respectively. Except here, they’re not the straightforward badasses they were in the show, which makes sense. You need to play around with the variables of the source material in the adaptation process for the comedy to work much like Hill and Tatum were incompetent in their jobs as cops (undercover and otherwise) in “Jump Street” unlike their counterparts in the show.
In “CHiPs,” Baker (Shepard) is a pill-munching shlub with bad knees who only joins the CHP to win back the affections of his apathetic swim-instructing wife, played by his actual real-life wife, Kristen Bell. Shepard, who isn’t hesitant to describe her character as an “a–hole,” says it’s nothing like who she is in real life.
“It was pretty fun to watch actually because my wife is so inherently likable,” he said. “It’s nauseating how nice she is. So, to see her pull off someone who is really an a–hole was really really fun to watch, I thought. It’s really fun to watch in the movie as well because you like know what a good person she is and it’s fun to watch her be bad.”
Shepard also made the insanely smart move of casting Michael Pena as Ponch, who is actually an undercover FBI agent sent to join the CHP as part of an operation to root out some dirty cops who have been committing literal highway robbery. Pena, who proved himself a comedic dynamo in Marvel’s “Ant-Man,” plays a man who is cocky and foolhardy enough to shoot his own partner in order to catch the bad guy and score with every woman he meets even if they’re the wife of said bad guy. The running joke throughout the movie is his Kryptonite-like weakness and as Shepard puts it, “savant”-like knowledge of yoga pants (particularly if they’re made by Luluemon) and the latest sexual trends. Yet another reason the real-world CHP could not endorse the movie. “They cannot possibly endorse a movie that has a– eating in one of the conversations,” said Shepard.
The comedic chemistry between Shepard and Pena is what elevates “CHiPs” from an early spring distraction to a truly entertaining piece of comedic cinema and carries it in the lulls between the action sequences. Shepard and Pena credit their onscreen rapport to the extensive rehearsals they did before shooting.
“I would give Pena credit for this because I personally don’t like to rehearse and he loves to rehearse and so, we did rehearse a ton,” said Shepard.
“I ended up falling love with the process myself and we got a ton of great stuff out of that that ended up in the movie and that’s just where we got to know one another and let’s say we met for three hours, we might be reading the script for an hour of that and then we’d just be shooting the s— for the other two hours like getting to know each other and a lot of that zuzz ended up in the movie and I think that’s what helped a lot,” he continued.
“I think, for me, it was like really important to make sure that I was connected and in the zone and not overacting, not playing for the jokes,” added Pena. “That’s all the stuff that was needed and wanted that you find out during rehearsal, but then it’s one thing to know about it and then it’s another thing to kind of do it in the movie and then it’s another thing with going into the movie, knowing what the rules are for this particular film.”
When Ponch and Baker mount their hogs, the action really kicks into high-octane gear with some truly incredible chase scenes and GoPro-ey shots across the highways and beaches of Los Angeles, so much so that you could almost swear you can see “La La Land’s” opening number being filmed in the distance. Aside from the pitch perfect comedic beats, the stunts are what captivated me and, as it so happens, the film crew during shooting.
“I remember at the beach this guy going up a hundred feet … I think they cut for [lunch]. Nobody went to lunch. They wanted to see these guys make this incredible jump,” recounted Pena.
And as for Shepard, who actually rides bikes in his spare time, found himself competing with the stuntmen and coordinators while on set. “I’ve never felt competitive with other actors per se. I don’t think I’m all that gifted as an actor, but I’m really competitive with all my motorcycle friends and all my friends were either the stunt guys or the stunt coordinator,” he said. “There was a lot of weird machismo stuff going on with me and the stunt guys.”
The awesome action set pieces in “CHiPs” help assert that television shows need not remain on television. Rather, they can be made bigger, badder and more awe-inspiring if adapted for the big screen with a bigger budget to boot. In addition, the abundance of explosions, shootouts and epic motorcycle chases that help showcase the beauty of California were not an accident.
“The defining characteristics of that TV show, from my point of view, were California, which was, at that time, in the late ’70s, early ’80s, [“CHiPs”] was one of the only shows where California was the star of that show and also motorcycles,” said Shepard. “There was no other shows about guys on motorcycles and as a little kid, those two things were amazing to me, but also the wink at the audience is, in that show, things blew up inexplicably all the time. Like you couldn’t go ten minutes in that show without something exploding so there’s an inordinate amount of explosions in “CHiPs” and part of it is because of the show had so many.”
He also said that he watched “Lethal Weapon” and “Bad Boys” on repeat while writing the script to nail the buddy cop vibe.
For a movie about cops, “CHiPs” doesn’t play things too close to the vest in terms of its villain who is revealed within the first half hour or so. It’s not much of a spoiler to say it’s Vincent D’Onofrio playing a corrupt cop named Ray Kurtz. If that surname is conjuring up memories of “Apocalypse Now,” don’t be alarmed. That was kind of planned too.
“I was careful to look that up and make sure [Marlon Brando’s character is] not exactly Ray Kurtz [in “Apocalypse Now”]. Funny enough, you asked earlier about the California Highway Patrol. In order for them to help us, they had three really tiny requests for the script. They had read the script and one of them was that his character was originally named Ray Blackwell and they said to us in this meeting, “Look, we think it’s really funny that you named the guy Ray Blackwell, but we do think it would probably hurt his feelings” and I go “Who’s Who?”
“There’s a real Ray Blackwell,” chimed in Pena.
“He was like their most-decorated captain of all time,” said Shepard. “They thought I was purposefully accusing him of being a bad cop or something or a dirty cop, but I was like, ‘Oh my God. That’s a total coincidence. I’ll change the name.’ so I changed it to Kurtz like a week before we started shooting.”
D’Onofrio is joined by a veritable group of other well-seasoned actors of comedic and dramatic backgrounds like Maya Rudolph (“SNL”), Isiah Whitlock Jr. (“The Wire”) and Jane Kaczmarek (“Malcolm in the Middle”) who all bring their own zany brand of humor to the party. Specifically, Whitlock Jr. is terrific as Ponch’s exasperated boss — another example of turning the serious into light-heartedness — who can’t get over the exorbitant amount of federal money being spent on the operation, not to mention the revolving door of California women Ponch sleeps with.
Like I said, “CHiPs” makes a very strong case for its existence and TV shows turned movies in general. Anyone can make a comedy out of a comedy, but it takes some real forethought to turn a drama into a comedy. The credit here lies with writer-director-star Dax Shepard whose love and admiration of the original show helped make the transition as smooth and and loving as possible so that the film is equal parts original buddy cop movie and thoughtful homage.
Moreover, it brings about an awareness and relevance of pop culture that may have fallen by the wayside after all these years. Does that mean we’ll be seeing feature length “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” comedies in a few decades?
Probably not, but if Shepard and Pena want to take a crack at it, I’m game.