So, shocking news: Hit & Run is kind of a blast…go figure. Dax Shepard has, in fairness, made a movie before (2010′s Brother’s Justice, which sounds delightfully, suspiciously odd), so the man isn’t totally green in the realms of screenwriting and directing. All the same, permit me my surprised reaction. It’s late August, the film co-stars Tom Arnold, and Shepard remains best-known for his role in the MTV series Punk’d and Without a Paddle. Those aren’t exactly the kinds of credentials that inspire confidence in the jaded, but Shepard and co-director David Palmer use the aces hidden in their sleeves to great effect. Color me tasteless– Hit & Run works. Mostly.
But “mostly”, it turns out, is “better than good enough” when one’s expectations are nil. In that respect, handily exemplifies the benefits of forgoing watching movie trailers and reading plot synopses; for a film that’s so steeped in genre tropes, it may best be seen blind. Taking us on a trajectory from Milton, California to Los Angeles, Hit & Run follows Charlie Bronson (Shepard), a man under the custodianship of Witness Protection, as he attempts to help his girlfriend, Annie, (Kristen Bell), get to the city of angels for a critical job interview. Charlie’s reemergence in the real world doesn’t go unnoticed, expectedly– in fact, by the end of the film, he practically has a mob of different collected people chasing after him, from Randy, the witless Marshal assigned as Charlie’s protector (Arnold), to Annie’s ex-boyfriend, Gil (Michael Rosenbaum), to Alex Dmitri (Bradley Cooper), the very man Charlie is hiding from. It’s a regular confederacy of dunces on a road trip across the golden state.
Shepard’s plan here revolves around taking the elements of a gritty car chase movie, stitching them together with vulgar comic sensibilities, and filling out the rest of his picture with engaging performances. Out of those, the biggest surprise of the film might well be Shepard’s willingness to deliver with lurid, graphic violence. Not that Hit & Run marks even the fourth bloodiest movie of the summer, mind, but noses are broken and people are dragged across concrete and we really feel these actions as they happen. Raunchy, gross-out humor doesn’t come as a shock; that’s well in Shepard’s wheelhouse. But the degree to which Hit & Run gets its hands dirty makes for a welcome jolt.
Of course, the film’s main event is of an automotive nature– this is an hour and forty minutes defined by some really awesome cars. I’m not a car guy; I know enough about my Nissan to get myself from point A to point B successfully, and that’s about it. But even the most uninitiated man has a love for all things that go vroom flowing through his veins, and for every single person– man or woman– out there who can appreciate the sheer power of Tatums and Lincolns as they race across Californian fields and highways, Hit & Run makes for a satisfying high-speed tonic.
There’s also a love story tossed in for good measure, and while Annie and Charlie’s relationship occasionally hits some fairly boilerplate notes, it benefits immensely from veracity. Bell happens to be Shepard’s leading lady in real life as well as on set, and every moment that they share together– which comprises the bulk of the film’s running time– feels plain old warm and genuine. When they laugh, they’re really laughing; when they bicker, they’re really bickering. In a movie about badass muscle cars, we’re not really looking for those traces of authenticity, but Bell and Shepard frontload Hit & Run with honesty and buoyant charm even if they’re not rewriting the book on couple dynamics.
Everyone else here looks like they’re having a ball, too, and for largely the same reasons. What else can we expect from a movie made by a group of bona fide friends? Shepard also happens to be buds with Cooper and Arnold (who walks off with the lion’s share of the film’s laughs), and he does well with both of them– though Cooper, looking like a younger and far less puckered Mickey Rourke, almost gets shortchanged here in screen time. That’s actually one of the biggest problems Hit & Run faces; it slacks. Dmitri gets introduced further into the movie than he probably deserves, and doesn’t clash with Charlie until much, much longer after that. The effect is a diffusion of tension. What’s Charlie really running from here? We do get an answer, but it’s too late into the movie, and so Hit & Run is forced to lean heavily on the chemistry of its cast instead of building stakes.
But that just winds up feeling like a taunt from the film. We want Shepard and Cooper to interact more. At first blush, their confrontations feel like they’ve been tinkered with by Mary Rodgers; Cooper, traditionally handsome and charismatic, is the guy we assume will end up playing the hero. Shepard, unkempt and scraggly, suggests someone of fewer scruples. Both men work superbly regardless and Hit & Run finds strong footing in their interplay, but there’s just not enough of it– not to mention that for a car chase film, Hit & Run feels light on car chases (though the vehicular antics it does contain are exciting, smart, and well-done).
That’s just another reason to put Shepard and Cooper together sooner, though. When they meet, sparks fly, cars get driven, and the movie gains momentum, riding high on a throughline of embarrassed men trying to cover up their respective shame. If Palmer and Shepard had married Hit & Run‘s various elements together with better cohesion, their film would easily have been something truly special– but that’s not to say that what they have isn’t worth recommending on its own unexpected merits.