Studios will mine anything for an adaptation – popular books, classic literature, remakes of popular movies, television, games of all sorts. If there’s an audience, a studio will try to get its attention with a big screen adaptation. Sometimes, adapting a work may be the only way a project gets greenlit.
Police procedurals have been around for some time. Dragnet, the prototypical police procedural, began on the radio before moving to TV. Webb followed up with Adam-12, a series about two LA police officers and the calls they responded to during the day, and Emergency!, a paramedic procedural following the calls taken by the fictional Squad 51. The two series also went into some depth on what the characters did between calls.
In 1977, NBC added a new element to the police procedural. /CHiPs/ was typical for police procedurals, with a mix of action, drama, and comedy, but emphasized the buddy cop aspect that was still nascent in the previous series. Starring Larry Wilcox as Officer Jon Baker and Erik Estrada as Officer Frank “Ponch” Poncherello, CHiPs ran six seasons, gaining a fan base. The characters were typical of a duo at the time, one stoic, the other hot blooded, but the buddy cop archetype has to start somewhere, taking cues from The Odd Couple. Each standalone episode had a mix of comedic and dramatic police calls, threaded together by a subplot involving the main characters in their downtime. Even the supporting cast, including Randi Oakes, Paul Linke, Robert Pine, and Michael Dorn.
The series is memorable, at least among the older audiences, and the name stands out. This made it prime for adaptation, which Dax Shepard did with the 2017 release, CHIPS, starring Shepard as Jon and Michael Peña and Ponch. Shepard had been trying to get a movie starring himself and Peña, a comedy about motor sports, but studios kept turning him down. He decided to adapt CHiPs and the studio, Warner Bros Pictures, green lit the project.
The movie made a few changes to the characters. Jon became the CHP’s oldest rookie after he went through the police academy to try to win back his wife. Before that, he was a professional motocross rider, with the injuries that built up over his career, including gaining a titanium humerus among all his scars. Rainy days are not his friend. “Ponch”, really FBI Special Agent Castillo, is an undercover operative, being sent into different organizations to infiltrate and expose crime. The movie begins with him being the getaway driver for a gang of bank robbers.
In LA, a number of armoured car robberies have been going on with precision, leaving no one dead at the scene of the heist. One of the robbers even moves a young woman out of the way of the shaped charge, dragging her from the car. However, during the robbery, a CHP cruiser arrives. The ringleader takes the driver of the armoured car with him, holding him hostage as a CHP helicopter hovers overhead. The catch, the driver is in on the crime, as is the helicopter pilot. The ringleader forces a choice, and the pilot takes a dive out of the chopper.
The FBI sends in Castillo as Poncherello to infiltrate the CHP the same day Jon is given an ultimatum. Due to his poor marks at the academy, Jon has to finish in the top ten percent in performance or be washed out of the CHP. The only area he has top marks in is motorcycle riding. Jon gets paired with new transfer Ponch and the two begin their patrol. Ponch starts his assigned investigation, only to be hindered by Jon ticketing for every possible offense. However, Jon turns out to be more observant than Ponch, noticing in a brief look that the home of the dead pilot’s widow didn’t have any sign that they were even together.
The investigation keeps building, leading to chasing of the ringleader’s son after a drug deal. The ringleader isn’t out to get rich but to get his kid to a place where he can kick his drug habit. The death of his son in the chase pushes him over the edge, leading to a campaign to get his revenge on Jon and Ponch.
The film makes changes to the original. Ponch and Jon are the more obvious change from the original. The movie shakes up the characters, making Jon not so much straitlaced as out of touch. Ponch is professional but is very likely to succumb to his weakness, mainly women wearing yoga pants. Shepard describes the difference between them as female energy (Jon) and male energy (Ponch). Neither is shown as being the better; each has their own strengths and weaknesses.
The cast is more diverse than the original series, with a more even mix of men and women in uniform plus a few gay men. The script doesn’t quite take full advantage, but some plot points did slip in. The movie, though, tends to be more bro humour, low brow. CHIPS is rated R for good reason. It’s not necessarily a bad movie. The new approach, though, may be jarring to anyone expecting something like the original.
The main thing holding the movie back from being a good adaptation is that Dax Shepard took advantage of current studio thinking. Original works are risky; adaptations aren’t. Attach a known name to a project and the studio will fund. Given that, there is effort to recreate the original series even while using its name to push through a project that would otherwise not get funded. There is action, there is comedy, there is drama, and there is thought put behind the villain’s motives for what he’s doing, as well as motives for the other characters involved. The result is a movie that at times is held back because it had to be filmed under the banner of another work.