What...no flashback to Randi Oakes in a bikini? Genial but generally lame reunion for those Olympian West Coast Sun Gods of the Forever Spinning Firestones. Warner Bros.' own M.O.D. (manufactured on demand) service, the Archive Collection, which makes available for obsessed fans all those hard-to-find library and cult movie and TV titles, has released CHiPs '99, the 1998 cable movie from TNT, starring Larry Wilcox, Erik Estrada, Robert Pine, Paul Korver, David Ramsey, and, um...Judge Judy. A laid-back breeziness helps with the overall wheeziness here...but Ponch had me the minute he flashed those pearly whites. A new video trailer for the movie is included in this good-looking transfer.
A lot has changed since our boys last spun their KZ1000s over those endless ribbons of L.A. concrete and asphalt back in the early 80s. Easy-going Officer Jon Baker (Larry Wilcox) is now Captain Jon Baker, and he rides a desk, not a bike, along with one-time commanding officer and now CHP Commissioner, Joseph Getraer (Robert Pine). Baker's former partner―and former best friend―Frank "Ponch" Poncerello (Erik Estrada), has recently re-joined the force up north in Marin County, but he somehow finds himself back on duty at his old L.A. station house when Ponch's other partner, Bruce Nelson (Bruce Penhall) gets a promotion. Ponch's reunion with Jon is awkward, at best, but nothing compared to Ponch's encounter with Baker's new hotshot, Officer Peter Roulette (Paul Korver), a dispositional genetic duplicate of former troublemaker Ponch. Roulette may have that Ponch swagger down, but he's kept in check (just as Jon kept Ponch in check all those years ago) by level-headed partner Officer Sergeant McFall (David Ramsey). Luckily, Ponch puts in for a temporary transfer just in time for Jon to give him a plum assignment: help the new guys bust a nefarious car-jacking ring, led by sultry Monica (Claudette Mink).
You can look at the laid-back but ultimately inconsequential CHiPs '99 two ways: in the context of an average CHiPs episode, or in relation to other TV reunion movies. As an example of duplicating a typical CHiPs outing, CHiPs '99, unfortunately, doesn't even come close to approximating that dizzying, delightful, Adam-12 Takes Emergency! to the Disco Dance Party goofiness that marked CHiPs as one of the all-time most enjoyable "junk food" network shows from the late 70s (you can read here about the epiphany I experienced four years ago when I reviewed Season Two of ChiPs). A lot is missing here from that perfect formula. Jon and Ponch don't really "ride" together for an extended period of time (a big mistake), thus eliminating not only the essential partner chemistry central to the show, but also all those subplots of freaked-out hippies, pregnant drivers in labor, dope-smuggling villains, and seat belt-skipping psychos that gave the series its loopy speed and punch. No minor TV guest stars are present so we can say, "Oh my god so-and-so is reduced to doing a CHiPs!" (where oh where are you, Troy Donahue and the like?). Most criminally of all in CHiPs '99―no bikini babes or tight-jodhpured co-workers or super-hot stranded motorists for Ponch to sexually harass: Ponch doesn't get it on with even one foxy lady here.
Now, I know what you're going to say: they "updated" it for the 90s. It's supposed to be funny that hotshot Roulette thinks Ponch is a hot dog-eating, out-of-touch dinosaur! Look at how cute Ponch is, stranded in this New Age L.A. where his kind of ass-pinching, rule-breaking, wise-cracking dreamboat would get fired in two seconds if he pulled that late 70s crap today! And anyways...wouldn't it be uncomfortable to see the slightly grayer, slightly...fuller Estrada pouring on the charm to a much younger actress? To all of that I say, "Fie!" Good god, men, this is CHiPs we're talking about! You want realism in your reunion movie? You want "helpful" updating for all today's little rule-following fascist squirts out there who never saw the show in the first place (and who would laugh at it now not out of appreciation...but in derision)? You want a so-called "realistic" framework for a script that lets Jon "mature" into even more of a tightass than he was 15 years before, while a sadly-deflated Ponch mourns for his dead wife while playing My One Son to little Frank, Jr. (Michael Vira)? Pardon my gloriously unconcerned, pre-P.C. language...but who the f*ck wants that in a CHiPs reunion? I don't want to be reminded that they're getting older. I don't want to hear both Jon and Ponch say "a lot of things have changed" at least three times apiece. I don't want anything to change, you understand? Hey, amigo―I want the CHiPs of old. I want bright, shiny, random flashes of action to keep my 4-minute attention span. I want Jon to shake his head and crack up at Ponch's douchiness, and I want Ponch, in all his self-inflated Hispanic glory, to strut his stuff out on the tarmac and in the bedroom. And I want some broads, too―especially if they're younger than Ponch. Isn't that the whole point of CHiPs in the first place? Escapism, fetishized with all that bike-and-uniform accoutrements, with some helpful SoCal T & A thrown in to top me off (and you can take that anyway you want, too)? And just so much the better if Estrada and Wilcox are "too old" for this kind of nonsense. That's the point, you idiots who made this: blind nostalgic nonsense...in full denial.
Oh, well. As it stands as a TV reunion movie... CHiPs '99 is just okay, I guess. Even though the story frequently makes no sense (explain to me again how Ponch got there...and where he's going after the movie ends), there is an attempt by screenwriter Morgan Gendel (V.I.P., Nash Bridges) and director Jon Cassar (24) to keep things light, which most of these reunion movies shoot for but usually miss (the spectacularly misjudged, out-of-place Judge Judy segment, however, is an embarrassment to all concerned). Some of the stunts are fun (but there's not nearly enough of them in the talky script), with director Cassar understanding the iconic necessity of putting orange fireballs behind our stars at least twice in the movie. And best of all, Wilcox and Estrada, who both look fit and trim enough to ride again into a weekly series, maintain just enough of a twinkle in their eyes to let everyone know they're having a good time getting back together again (or at least letting us know they were paid enough to twinkle). TV reunion movies, particularly for iconic shows like CHiPs, usually fill one function only: to give the fans a chance to see if the stars are dead or not.
CHiPs '99 does that.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.