October 3, 2012 • 11:24:40 p.m.

Movie review: "Hit & Run" (VIDEO)

By JEFFREY WESTHOFF

“Hit & Run” is a drive-in movie made at a time when drive-in theaters are all but extinct.

The movie aims for the aesthetics, such as they were, of cheapie 1970s car-chase comedies, but reaches for something intellectually higher. It’s “Smokey and the Bandit” as conceived by a Quentin Tarantino wannabe. The results are too lackadaisical to be mistaken for anything closer to genuine Tarantino.

The movie was written and co-directed by its star, Dax Shepard, who probably has the misfortune of being frequently mistaken for Dane Cook. Shepard plays Charlie Bronson (yep, you read that correctly), and for the last four years the Witness Protection Program has guarded him in a small California town somewhere north of Los Angeles.

Life in that town has been boring for Charlie, but his girlfriend, Annie (Kristen Bell), makes it bearable. Annie teaches at the local community college, but her chance to become a department head at UCLA upends Charlie’s humdrum existence. The bank robbers he testified against, led by Bradley Cooper, are in L.A., and his life might be in danger if he returns.

Charlie decides that his future with Annie is worth the risk, so he volunteers to drive her to her job interview in his super-stocked 1967 Lincoln. Annie doesn’t know about Charlie’s past life, but the muscle car with five-point racing safety harnesses instead of seatbelts ought to give her a clue.

Charlie and Annie have barely left the town limits before Charlie’s past catches up to him. Cooper’s crew is soon after him, tipped off by Annie’s jealous and insecure ex-boyfriend, Gil (Tom Rosenbaum). As in many 1970s chase movies, a strange mix of characters gets dragged into the pursuit. These include the federal marshal in charge of Charlie (Tom Arnold) and Gil’s brother, Terry, a sheriff’s deputy who is gay.

We know Terry is gay because it is mentioned roughly every 30 seconds he is on screen. Shepard’s script doesn’t mean to mock the character, which is good, but it never establishes a point for its obsession with his character’s sexuality.

Partly this can be blamed on Shepard’s attempt to duplicate the way Tarantino’s characters go off on bizarre and lengthy discourses. For instance, while assaulting a man outside a supermarket, Cooper’s character lectures him on the nutritional value of dog food.

Much of these conversational gambits are artificial. Shepard uses a gay slur just so Bell can call him on it and the two can spend the next five minutes arguing whether epithets are ever justified. Later on, a discussion of prison rape drops out of nowhere then heads down a strange racial tangent.

Many absurdities are at work in the plot. The chase is less about escaping Cooper than getting Annie to L.A. in time for her interview. She hopes to teach nonviolent conflict resolution, but finds herself in an increasingly violent crime story.

Shepard and his co-director, David Palmer, take an approach that is too low key to shape the material into true comedy. The situations are usually more weird than funny. Cooper appears in dreadlocks and wears outdated aviator sunglasses that are always askew. At this point in his career, the handsome actor hasn’t established his persona enough to send it up.

Plus, this is a movie where Tom Arnold receives featured billing and apparently was cast because Shepard genuinely wanted him and not because Jim Belushi was asking too much money.

The federal marshal he plays is the typical Arnold character, too incompetent to be trusted with a plastic fork much less a firearm, but armed and deadly anyway. He nearly shoots two young girls in the opening scene, which is supposed to be funny. It’s not, and it wouldn’t be even if Jim Carrey or Steve Carell played the role.

Kristin Chenoweth also appears as Annie’s boss, an oversexed firecracker. This is a role she needs to stop playing.

To Bell’s credit, she tries to get into her character, but the script doesn’t give her enough to work with. Like Sally Field in “Smokey and the Bandit,” Bell’s role is to offer Shepard someone cute to converse with when he isn’t pressing the pedal to the metal. And all the stunt work is real, performed with actual cars and not CGI models, even though only one of the chases is memorable.

The soundtrack is a mismatched mix of rock and pop songs, many that originated in early 1970s films. This includes the Lou Rawls version of “Pure Imagination” from “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” and we can be grateful it’s not the Russell Brand version.

“Hit & Run” could have gone down many roads that would have made it a worse experience. It doesn’t come across as a vanity project for Shepard. It isn’t mean-spirited, overly vulgar or overly violent. It isn’t a bad film, but an odd one, a work of nostalgia that doesn’t understand what it should be nostalgic about.

“Hit & Run”

2 stars

Who’s in it: Dax Shepard, Kristin Bell, Tom Arnold, Bradley Cooper

What it’s about: Although he has been in the Witness Protection Program for four years, reformed criminal Shepard is willing to leave protective custody and return to Los Angeles because his girlfriend (Bell) has a job opportunity there. As soon has they hit the road in his classic muscle car, his old partner (Cooper) is after him, along with an inept federal marshal (Arnold).

Rated R for pervasive language including sexual references, graphic nudity, some violence and drug content

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes


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