Hit and Run is one of those movies you want to love as it ambles along, even as you calculate all the bothersome little things about it. Dax Shepard’s second directorial feature (he shares credit with David Palmer, who also co-directed their first, 2010’s Brother’s Justice) is a hybrid of a gearhead-car-chase flick and a touchy-feely romantic comedy. But the car chase is more quirky than suspenseful, and the romance thin, though charming. The film has its problems, to be sure, but it builds up a head of goodwill, and you want to forgive its problems.
A lot of that good will is due to Shepard, an underestimated actor whose low-key charisma often comes close to stealing whatever show he’s in. He moves with the easy grace of a free spirit, but he has a face that bespeaks worry, which turns out to be perfect for the part of Charlie Bronson, née Yul Perkins, a former getaway driver now living in the witness-protection program in a small town with his girlfriend Annie (Kristen Bell) and being watched over by incompetent but friendly U.S. marshal Randy (Tom Arnold). Annie doesn’t quite know the extent of Charlie’s involvement in the criminalities he testified against four years ago; she thinks he was just a witness. Still, when she gets a job opportunity in Los Angeles teaching nonviolent conflict resolution (yes, the film does have some fun with that), she’s ready to say no, knowing that Charlie can’t come with her. Charlie, however, won’t let her refuse the gig and decides to return to the big city out of love for her. But to its credit, the film doesn’t play this up as some elaborate romantic gesture: Charlie and Annie have a leisurely little love affair going, and it makes perfect sense that he’d go with her. (Shepard and Bell are an actual couple, and this is that rare movie where you can sort of imagine the relationship the two leads might have in real life.)
Anyhoo, things don’t quite go as planned. When Annie’s preening ex Gil (Michael Rosenbaum, whom you might remember as the young Lex Luthor in Smallville) finds out she’s headed out of town with Charlie, he digs up our hero’s past and Facebook messages the guy Charlie/Yul double-crossed: a dreadlocked sociopath named Alex Dmitri (Bradley Cooper), whom we first meet practically murdering some dude over his choice of dog food. And we’re off to the races, as they say.
Shepard and Palmer have some fun intercutting Charlie and Annie’s romantic banter and minor squabbles as Alex and the bad guys close in on them, but it’s not really suspense or conventional drama the film is going for. Whenever it has to move the story forward, the script seems to fall apart, with expository dialogue that’s way too on the nose (“So, how did you get stuck with witness protection?” is an actual question Charlie asks of Randy, after what must be years of knowing him) and key scenes that seem to just fizzle away into nothingness. It’s more interested in obvious, occasionally funny, exchanges over such topics as prison rape, social networking, the types of people who like vintage cars, and when it’s appropriate to use the word “fag.” Even when Charlie finally gets the chance to let his long-dormant, tricked-out, custom-built car rip, the film refuses to amp up in suspense or threat level. We’re expecting speed, but we get languor instead, as Charlie starts doing slow-mo 360s to the sounds of “Pure Imagination.” The effect is strangely comforting, even joyous.
Throughout that scene and others, the camera often cuts to Annie and Charlie in the front of the car. All logic dictates that she should be terrified, but the expression on Bell’s face is one of glee. Then you realize that what we’re watching is probably not the usual movie trickery, but Shepard doing his own stunt driving, his real-life fiancée beside him. Whether for budgetary or artistic reasons, most of the film plays out in the creatively muted register of Shepard and Bell’s romance. Which is probably for the best, because they’re the most interesting part of the movie. Hit and Run works less as a film and more as a likable, semi-documentary romp among friends. The illusion of the drama may be gone, but it’s been replaced by something more authentic and adorable. And we might be okay with that.