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Movie version of ‘CHiPS’ heads into R territory

  • ASSOCIATED PRESS

    Dax Shepard, left, Erik Estrada and Michael Pena at the Los Angeles premiere of “CHIPS.” Estrada co-starred in the original TV show the movie is based on.

LOS ANGELES >> Dax Shepard was only 2 when “CHiPs” started airing on NBC and 8 by the time the popular series about the California Highway Patrol ended. He remembers the show — the sunshine, the motorcycles, the diversity (there weren’t many Latinos in his hometown of Detroit). It was like a vacation from the grayness every night on prime time.

But it was a faint memory until recently, when Shepard found himself googling how to spell Poncherello for a joke for a screenplay he was writing and came across a photo of Jon and Ponch looking “kind of cool.” Suddenly he saw something else: a cool “CHiPs,” in the vein of “Lethal Weapon” or “Bad Boys.”

Suffice it to say, the names might be the same, but “CHIPS” is not your father’s “CHiPs.” The once family-friendly show has veered into R territory in the feature film, out today.

It’s not an uncommon practice. “21 Jump Street,” its sequel, and “Miami Vice” veered into the R zone, as will this summer’s “Baywatch” remake.

“CHIPS” wasn’t always going to be that way. When Shepard signed on to write, direct and star in the adaptation, it was envisioned as PG-13 with a $45 million budget. When that was slashed to $25 million, Shepard insisted on the R.

“I generally like to see R-rated movies, and I think you should make what you want to consume even though it’s really tempting to make something you think people want to see,” he said.

At 42, Shepard has a few writing and directing credits to his name, including “Brother’s Justice” and “Hit and Run,” but he’s no doubt more widely known for his acting in films like “Idiocracy” and television shows like “Punk’d” and “Parenthood.” He didn’t have any delusions of his own star power to actually open a film. When he pitched his modern vision for “CHiPs,” he actually assumed the studio would go with a proven star like Chris Pratt or Channing Tatum for Jon Baker.

But Warner Bros. liked Shepard and his plan to cast Michael Pena as Ponch, and they got the green light. For one, Shepard is an economical director. “Brother’s Justice” cost $5,000 to make, and “Hit and Run” cost $1 million. They also had the intellectual property cushion on their side.

“I could have never gone to a studio and said, ‘Hey here’s this original comedy called ‘Bonkers for Motorcycles,’ and it’s me and Michael Pena and we need $25 million.’ They would have never done it. I knew if I were going to get any movie made, it was going to have to be within a brand or a property that provided the studio with some insurance,” Shepard said. “And then I get to make a completely original movie that just has the known title in it.”

From there Shepard got to make the action comedy he’s felt has been missing from cinemas in the past 15 years — one that doesn’t treat the action as a throwaway.

“I see pretty big-budget action movies where there’s a lot of cheating going on,” he said. “I just get bored when I watch computer-generated battles in movies. I’ve walked out of more movies in the last five years than I have my whole life.”

Shepard took pains to do everything practically, from the motorcycle stunts to blowing up propane tanks. With the exception of one small shot, nothing in the film is digital.

Andrew Panay, who produced “CHIPS,” said Shepard is an “incredibly gifted filmmaker” whose clear vision and kindness permeates the set. He’s also a deft choreographer of action sequences.

“Everything is about timing, and you can’t really mess up when you’re blowing up cars and splitting trailers in half. … You have one shot to get it, and you better get it,” Panay said.

Getting the right mix of action and comedy wasn’t all Shepard had to balance. As the screenwriter, Shepard also tried to infuse a little bit of his own social consciousness into the script. There’s an ongoing thread where Ponch is repulsed by the thought of touching a naked man, and the two debate whether that’s homophobic.

“I love talking about stuff in an apolitical way. I have a unique opportunity because I have a very male, motor-sports fan base to bring these things up in a way that’s not preachy,” Shepard said. “We’re always going to be making race jokes, sexuality jokes — those jokes are never going away. That’s what comedians do. So the fun challenge is, how do you do it that’s appropriate to 2017? That’s a big juggling act.”

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