Certain kinds of movies will attract hostile attention even before they open, particularly movies that concern controversial issues of religion, or politics, or revisionist history.
Dax Shepard’s revamp of the 1977-83 NBC police show, which opens Friday, March 24, got abuse from the get-go — from the show’s original co-star Larry Wilcox, from less-than-temperate fans on Twitter (“PURE TRASH!”) and from others who thought Shepard wasn’t going to pay proper respect to the memory of an immortal television drama.
They had no idea.
“To me it was a way to sneak one in under the radar,” said Shepard (“Parenthood”), “basically do a really offbeat movie, but do it under the umbrella of a global property so the studio would let me make it.”
In other words, the movie he made — an eccentric, extremely funny and certainly irreverent comedy — would never have been greenlit without the, uh, ruse of being a remake. “Especially for them to take a leap of faith and let me direct and write and be in it and all that,” he said. “They needed some air cover for sure.”
Shepard plays the perpetually discombobulated Jon Baker, a former motorcycle stunt driver who, after an infamous number of accidents and 23 surgeries, decides to enter the California Highway Patrol academy and become a uniformed motorcycle cop. Michael Peña (“Fury,” “The Martian,” “End of Watch”) plays an FBI agent who joins the CHP undercover, gets partnered with the unsuspecting Jon and is given the alias Francis Poncherello — or Ponch, the handle of Erik Estrada’s character in the original series.
Among the rumors going around was that Estrada, who has a cameo in the film, was upset with Shepard’s movie. “Yeah, it’s not a spoiler anymore,” Shepard said, “but when we heard these stories we had to come out and say, ‘He’s not upset with the movie. He’s in the movie.’ ”
The story involves Ponch infiltrating CHP to investigate a rogue operation led by the fearsome Vic Brown (Vincent d’Onofrio) and a contingent of fellow criminal officers. The efforts of Jon and Ponch to crack the case follow some predictable tangents of ineptitude, slapstick and violence — the injuries suffered by some of the characters are surprisingly serious. (Ponch loses some fingers, for instance; another character loses a head.) Far less predictable are the personalities of Jon and Ponch and their very contemporary concerns about grooming, sex and, by the way, criminal investigations.
“I think the traditional archetypes of a buddy cop movie are one guy who’s straight-faced, and the other who’s a loose cannon,” Shepard said. “But I thought it would be more fun if the dynamic in this movie was more the male and female perspective.”
His character has emotional intelligence, he said; Peña’s character has logical intelligence. “So you’re more or less hearing a man and a woman fight for most of the movie,” Shepard said. “When they argue, they’re both making stellar points. They’re just arguing on two different planes.”
The actor-director, a longtime motor-sports enthusiast, is married to actress Kristen Bell, who plays Jon Baker’s soon-to-be ex-wife in the film; together they have two daughters and have campaigned against the practice of publishing photos of celebrities’ children. Knowing that ahead of time makes one scene in the film particularly tart, when a few camera people get creamed during a motorcycle chase. (“It’s paparazzi,” someone reports. “It’s fine.”) It’s pretty funny.
“I would agree,” Shepard said. “Let’s put it this way: When I was writing these set pieces I knew I only had $25 million dollars, so I wasn’t going to be doing ‘Fast and Furious’-level stuff. I thought, ‘There has to be a really good dose of comedy within all the action,’ so it gets into this rhythm: stunt, stunt, joke; stunt, stunt, joke.
“Then I started asking myself, ‘Well, who would it be fun to see get mowed over? You don’t want to feel bad for anyone.’ So I said, ‘Well, I can’t stand to see anyone with selfie sticks — that seems safe. And who would care if paparazzi got run over?’ And I just went through the list of people no one would care about getting hit.
“I think at the L.A. screening, they clapped when the paparazzi got run over.”
The inevitable question is whether Shepard and Co. are going to continue their motorcycle ride down Non-Remake Highway. “From your lips to God’s ears,” he said. “I would like nothing more than to make more of these. It was like a 45-day-long birthday party.”
Will Ponch have his fingers? “Well, he did have them in a bag in the ambulance,” Shepard said, referring to one scene in the film. “Believe me, I thought of that. I didn’t want to deal with prosthetics [in] the whole sequel.”
They didn’t have it remade in the shade
Dax Shepard’s damn-the-torpedoes “remake” of “ChiPs” turns Hollywood’s passion for recycling on its ear. But what exactly is the strategy behind all these television-show movies? Does anyone in the cherished 18-34 moviegoing demographic even remember these programs? Not likely. There’s a certain amount of name recognition involved, a vast degree of corporate cowardice (“Hey, it worked for ‘Star Trek!’ ”), but some big-screen adaptations make no sense from the start — the original shows were obscure, inane or too good (like “The Honeymooners”) to ever be equaled. Some supremely misguided examples can be found below.
SGT. BILKO (1996) Ex-vaudevillian and burlesque comedian Phil Silvers was the original Ernest G. Bilko, con man extraordinaire, in the ’50s comedy “You’ll Never Get Rich” (subsequently retitled “The Phil Silvers Show”). In the remake, Steve Martin played Bilko, head of the motor pool at a U.S. Army base and perpetrator of what felt like a 93-minute con job.
CAR 54, WHERE ARE YOU? (1994) Now holding a not-so-highly coveted 0 percent critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes, this remake was deemed “brainless floparooney” by Entertainment Weekly’s Lisa Schwarzbaum, who was hardly alone in her assessment of the David Johansen-John C. McGinley version of the NBC sitcom, originally starring Joe E. Ross and Fred Gwynne as mismatched Bronx patrolmen.
THE HONEYMOONERS (2005) Jackie Gleason was such an outsized force of comedic nature that stepping into the role of Ralph Kramden — bus driver, bowler, loyal Raccoon — was something Cedric the Entertainer should have known was going to end in wreckage and ruin. None among the predominantly African-American cast — which included Gabrielle Union, Mike Epps and Regina Hall — likely remember it very fondly.
21/22 JUMP STREET (2012/2014) It’s not that the Channing Tatum-Jonah Hill matchup is necessarily bad (or that much worse than others), but like “CHIPs” it has almost nothing to do with the original 1987-91 show, which was eminently forgettable save for the fact that it once starred Johnny Depp.
THE AVENGERS (1998) No, not those “Avengers.” Rather, the ones so urbanely played by Diana Rigg and Patrick Macnee in the British spy series that began in 1961 and whose allure was all about the chaste heat generated by the two stars (and the more obvious heat generated by Rigg). Uma Thurman has many attributes, as does Ralph Fiennes, but the lameness of their material, and the fact that the filmmakers so obviously had no clue as to what made the original so popular, almost made the movie seem like a deliberate attempt to strangle a franchise that might have been.
— JOHN ANDERSON