Somehow Dax Shepard has managed to segue from being the other prank guy on Punk’d to being a director (along with his behind-the-camera partner David Palmer), a writer, and an editor, and miraculously, that’s not as bad a decision as you might think. After making the oddball “Dax Sheppard in Japan” martial arts mocumentary Brothers Justice in 2010, the guy has set his sights on reviving the road-race action comedy subgenre with Hit and Run. Pitched somewhere between 70s exploitation lovers-on-the-run movies, Burt Reynold’s highway comedies, and a 90s wise-cracking crime movie, Hit and Run is definitely a huge step up from his first feature. For one thing, it at least feels like a real movie this time. The trouble is that it feels a little too similar to some classic car-carnage movies that Sheppard and company don’t quite have the resources or screenplay to pull off. However, there’s enough genre charm and decent performances here to make the whole thing a lightly entertaining watch.
Dax stars as Charlie Bronson, or at least that’s the name he’s given himself since entering witness protection and moving to a small town in the middle of nowhere. He’s a nice enough guy that he’s managed to hide his getaway driver past from everyone including his new, impossibly beautiful girlfriend Annie (Kristen Bell, impossibly beautiful and an underrated talent). Unfortunately, Annie just got a big job offer that requires her to be in Los Angeles, which is the only city Charlie can’t be in since all his old criminal buddies kick around them parts. He’s a good boyfriend, though, so he even agrees to drive her to the interview in the old getaway car he’s been hiding on the farm. Unfortunately, Charlie’s former bank-robbin’ buddy (Bradley Cooper, in dreadlocks for some reason) finds out about his return and as a result of Charlie becoming an informant, he’s out for revenge. From there, car chases, violence, and the exchange of wisecracks ensue. Oh yeah, and Tom Arnold is also in pursuit as Charlie’s witness protection contact and he sure is Tom Arnold.
The plot is fairly threadbare and really just an excuse for banter, car chases, and mild gunplay. The banter as written isn’t all that great and will dig up some painful memories for anyone who ever sat through a direct-to-video Tarantino knock off in the 90s. Conversations veer from discussions of criminal activity to minute sitcom relationship observations and back again throughout.
It would be grating were the cast not so good. Specifically, Shepard and Bell are both deeply underrated performers who rarely get to show off their talents. Throw in the fact that they’re an actual couple that Shepard crafted the banter for, and there’s more chemistry than the film deserves. Cooper is solid as the bad guy with a smile, and while he may not have chosen a streak of incredible movies since his Hangover success, the guy at least has a good grasp on the limits of his talent and is smart enough to know which roles to take. The rest of the cast varies in quality. Tom Arnold is a perfect annoying road companion, but his presence gets more grating the longer he’s on screen. Kristin Chenoweth is also pretty irritating as Bell’s filthy-talking boss, but that’s probably more a result of the writing than her. Then there’s the case of Shepard’s father, a character mentioned frequently and set up as a cameo clearly intended for Burt Reynolds, but instead somehow played by Beau Bridges. Beau is fine in the role, he just feels like a stand in for a better cameo (of which there are two more later in the film).
Shepard and Palmer do a good job creating an easygoing vibe for the film while still giving it a gritty widescreen faux-exploitation movie look. Hit and Run couldn’t have cost much to make, but it always looks slick. The only time the limited resources become a problem is unfortunately during the climatic car chases. Without much experience staging action, these scenes are often limited to pulling donuts, speeding down dusty roads, or at one point driving in circles around and abandoned airport. Shepard clearly created the scenes to give himself a chance to drive fast and get paid for it, but the movie really needed more elaborate automotive choreography and painful pile-ups to deliver the thrills required from the genre. A car chase movie with disappointing car chases is a pretty devastating flaw, and sadly the fledgling filmmakers can’t even match the stunts pulled off in Roger Corman’s zero-budget lovers-on-the-run flicks from the 70s (though to be fare, those nutso drive-in filmmakers didn’t have to worry about any safety regulations). The meager stunts work well enough to keep the movie from being a bomb and thankfully the amusing performances make it all go down smoothly.
Hit and Run isn’t an all out success, but has enough charm around its rough edges to be a fairly enjoyable homage to a few departed genres. The nice thing is the surprising growth Shepard has shown as a filmmaker and his ability to tailor a movie to his detached, sarcastic charms. The guy has enough talent that he shouldn’t just be playing the wacky wrong love interest in crappy rom-coms, so maybe he’ll actually make something that shows it off next time and get a little deserved attention. There’s enough improvement and moments that work here to suggest that Dax directing isn’t just some ego-driven fantasy. So even if it isn’t a classic, it proves that it’s worth keeping an eye on that guy.