Thursday, 4 May 2017

CHiPs (2017) - Movie Review

Many times over the last few months, I have found myself defending what most call separating the art from the artist; basically, the idea of ignoring an artist’s real-world transgressions when it comes to discussing their art. Most of the time, I bring this up as a result of people (particularly when it comes to YouTube, I’ve noticed) performing mass subscription exoduses in response to something or other to do with racist comments. The reasons why, I think, are fairly obvious: Their work has nothing to do with politics or race, so why should it be judged on those terms? Of course, this mindset gets a little trickier when a person’s real-life mentality spills into their art, meaning that separation between the two is pretty much impossible.
Why do I bring this up? Well, for the first time in quite a while, I find myself compelled to look into just what exactly this film says about the guy who made it. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The plot: FBI agent Frank “Ponch” Poncherello (Michael Peña) is assigned to work undercover in the California Highway Patrol to investigate a crime that may be connected to crooked cops within the force. Teamed up with rookie cop and former motocross athlete Jon Baker (Dax Shepard), the two go about their assigned duties while Ponch works the corruption case on the side. However, as they start to dig deeper into the inner workings of the force, it seems that danger is far closer than either of them could have expected.

The cast here is mainly good, provided you focus solely on the main cast. Shepard works well with the physical humour he gave himself and, while the whole “taking his job too seriously” bit can get tired, he at least manages to be tolerable at worst. Opposite him, Peña handles his womanizing with questionable aplomb, and while his main schtick also runs its course rather quickly, he stays charming enough to, again, be tolerable at worst. Probably helps that the chemistry between them is as good as it is, giving Peña a far better foundation to work off of than the last buddy cop film he was in. Vincent D’Onofrio as our antagonist is at once down-to-earth and incredibly intense when it’s called for, once again showing his knack for completely absorbing whatever character he’s given.
Aside from those main three, things get shaky real quickly. Isiah Whitlock Jr. as Ponch’s higher-up is as textbook as you can get for a law enforcement chief, Adam Brody is obnoxious in how badly he’s trying to sell the comedy he’s given and Kristen Bell as Baker’s wife is annoying to point of being unwatchable. The fact that Bell was intentionally written to be so not only doesn’t excuse her annoyance levels, but it also brings up certain… interesting connotations with her casting. More on that later, though.

Given how we’re dealing with another modern remake of a kitschy police-related TV show, and one intrinsically involving motorcycles no less, attempts to ape Lord and Miller’s Jump Street films is almost inevitable when it comes to action. Now, as I’ve mentioned on this blog, I’m not that interested in action scenes involving cars. I don’t get the absolute fascination that others have with giant metal boxes hurtling down the road at ungodly speeds, nor how pretty they apparently are; this can be extended to pretty much anything with a motor and wheels.
I bring this up because, surprisingly, I kind of dug the action scenes here. There’s a decent amount of variety here, like a car chase that ends up at a fete with several bouncy castles getting pushed around by the cops, and the camerawork is (mostly) coherent enough to make out the effort that went into these set pieces, a definite surprise considering this has the same DOP as Transformers. But probably the big thing that makes me like these scenes is how easily the cars involved explode. Given how Every Car Is A Pinto is a common cop show trope, something the original CHiPs has a rather notorious example of, this is the kind of satire that should be in a film like this.

The writing is… mixed. The characters are very much written with joke opportunities at the forefront, from Baker’s chronic injuries to Ponch’s sex addiction, and the amount of dick jokes that spring up (ugh) between them frequently results in some painfully try-hard (UGH) moments. That said, credit where it’s due in that the way that the two compliment and contrast each other makes for a decent buddy dynamic and their chemistry is good enough to back it up in most scenes. A little too much armchair diagnosis going on at times with each other’s characters, but then again, it’s still more subtle than the rampant sex jokes that they cram into every other scene.
The story is rather basic as far as dirty cop yarns go, but again, I have to give props to how the main antagonist is characterised, coming across as someone who is doing some pretty awful things but has his arguable reasons for them. Not sure whether that’s more D’Onofrio’s character expertise at work or if it’s the actual writing, but still. Also, for as weak as some of the plot progression can get, nothing will make me not appreciate Baker’s defining character moment. Long story short, near the end, he argues with Ponch about whether or not a person deserves to be saved… and brings up how, despite the crap that Ponch himself has done to him, Baker still willingly saved his life. Because, as an officer of the law, it’s what he’s supposed to do. Idealistic, sure, but that is still one hell of a strong sentiment and probably one of the more noble statements I’ve heard out of one of these bro-comedies.

As I was initially watching the film, I kept noticing that there were a fair few jokes that I just didn’t seem to understand. A few involving Ponch’s casual pick-ups, one of the most awkwardly contrived FaceTime sequences since the invention of FaceTime itself, a report of a beautiful officer picking up a suspect and everyone on the force instantly knowing who the officer in question was; I may be picky about my jokes, but at least I’m usually able to get where the jokes are. And then it hit me like a painting being smashed over my head: These are jokes made at the expense of women’s looks. There’s even a joke solely devoted to rating women out of ten based on physical appearance, coupled with questioning whether a particular woman is being used because she has low self-esteem. Maybe it’s just because I’m not an objectifying douchebag, and how I see a certain hypocrisy in personally mocking how other people look seeing as I’m not exactly a prize specimen myself, but I don’t find this funny. Not even remotely.
It’s at this point that I play my hand concerning my introduction. Considering Dax Shepard’s heavy involvement in this project, to the point where it is ultimately his film, there’s an awful lot of himself in this. His love for motorcycles, writing himself to be the subject of a lot of physical humour, casting his actual wife as his fictional wife and his actual best mate as his partner; it’s easy to tell that this is something he put a lot of himself into. Given the subplot concerning his failing marriage and the frequent misogynistic bullshit that goes on, I get the feeling that this guy is dealing with some serious issues at the moment.

All in all, as much as I definitely like certain parts of this film, from the acting to the action scenes and even the writing which delivered on a rather disarming bit of genuine pathos, there is no way that I can conscionably recommend this. Not to say that this is Lights Out levels of negation but the levels of sexism on display here is at once baffling and quite disgusting. If I gave two shits about celebrity culture outside of films, I’d wonder if this is telling of Shepard’s current relationship, but quite frankly, this film is troubling enough without the prospect of real-world consequences.

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