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Rev Up Your Engines for Jon & Ponch's Return in 'CHIPS '99'
on January 8, 2015
Kudos to CHIPS series producer Rick Rosner and the TNT cable network for reviving this long-missed, 1977-83 NBC program, if only for a 15-year reunion film in late 1998. The vintage opening credits crack like a broken mirror, as CHIPS '99 roars into action with a freeway chase to the tune of Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild." This updated CHIPS proceeds to swipe a few glossy pages from BAYWATCH's flash-over-substance playbook substituting bikinis and speedos for BMW motorcycles and gaudy sports cars, interspersed with some nice flashbacks to the old series. Per its ruthless carjacking ring storyline, this surprisingly gritty movie also teases some possibly deadly violence, much more than the TV series ever did. Despite all the guns drawn and some obviously choreographed, razzle-dazzle stunts, no shots are actually fired; there is minimal blood; and nobody dies ... yes, CHIPS '99 serves as a much welcome respite to today's grim, shock-value TV cops-and-robbers.
Returning (and co-producing) are fifty-year olds Larry Wilcox (as Capt. Jon Baker) and Erik Estrada (as newly un-retired Officer Frank 'Ponch' Poncherello). Now a "rusty, old captain," Jon is married to Sandy, a pretty fellow CHIP, while Ponch is a reclusive widower with a young son, Frank Jr. No matter their real life differences, Wilcox and Estrada still have plenty of on-screen magic, especially as the aging ex-partners finally have a tense blow-up over Ponch's macho, "hot-dogging" antics. It makes one wonder where the simmering personality strife between Ponch & Jon ends and that of Estrada & Wilcox begins ... it's believable enough. Following the traditional series formula, the duo again split up the heroics, as the wild finale offers one of Jon's finest moments ... desperately risking his life in battle atop a speeding tour bus, no less! What I liked most about Jon & Ponch's interaction here is their poignant handshake ... it is a classy gesture at the end, as if the actors, too, have finally declared a truce. Perhaps it is most indicative that Jon quietly enters after Ponch and then exits before him, as if Wilcox is graciously deferring to Estrada's popularity in making CHIPS such a timeless pop culture hit.
Also returning is Robert Pine (as now-CHP Commissioner Joe Getraer), whose terrific slow burn over Ponch's return is priceless. Paul Linke (as Det. Grossman), Brodie Greer (as Officer Baricza), and Bruce Penhall (as Sgt. Nelson) appear in extended cameos, though they have far too little to do. The same applies to Stacie Randall and Michael Vira, the new actors portraying Jon's wife and Ponch's son, as both of them do some nice work in a few minutes. Instead, CHIPS '99 probably gives too much screen time to young guns David Ramsey (as tactful Officer McFall) and Paul Korver (as smarmy Officer Roulette). Ramsey's understated work is solid, but Korver's stuck-up Roulette resembles a cross between Chris O'Donnell's Dick Grayson/Robin from the 1990's BATMAN movies and Val Kilmer's "Ice" from TOP GUN. An inevitable rivalry between a wily, old school legend like Ponch and the swaggering Roulette should have added to the fun, but their instant feud grows old fast.
Something else I noticed re: CHIPS '99 is how it revisits the old series' history of campy celebrity cameos in spite of its new emphasis on guns, cheesy stunts, and muscle cars. In addition to rather pointless cameos by producer-director Garry Marshall and late producer-writer Stephen J. Cannell, there is a comedy relief segment featuring Judge Judy and attorney Johnny Cochran. Even though it was meant as a spoof on court reality TV shows, I'd recommend a quick fast-forward here, as this courtroom scene proves just simply ludicrous. I can't say this hokey gag routine is the script's sole problem, as the film's dialogue suffers some tired, almost awkward lapses. The good news is that Estrada, Wilcox, and Pine's inspired efforts, mixed with the series' genuine nostalgia, overcome this reunion movie's weaknesses easily enough. Not to mention hearing the familiar theme music again (given a contemporary, upbeat remix by musician Stacy Widelitz) is a real treat.
Overall, CHIPS '99 should satisfy its long-time fans, and youngsters will likely enjoy its appeal. No matter how often the movie revs the throttle favoring flash and grittiness over an improved script, CHIPS '99 remains a most entertaining, nostalgic joyride.
Rating: a fun 4/5 stars. It's appropriate for ages 8 and up.
P.S. The only DVD extra is the trailer.