The last couple of decades haven’t been great for medium-sized movies. As production and distribution costs have risen, films have been pushed to one of two categories: dollar-menu or super-sized. Moviegoers have their choice of blown-out spectacles and tiny wonders in abundance, but more modestly scaled films—be they relationship dramas or madcap comedies—have become endangered species. In that respect, Hit & Run—a film starring, written, and co-directed (with David Palmer) by Dax Shepard—is a noble throwback. A cross-country car-chase comedy that would probably make Hal Needham nod in recognition, it’s low on ambition but made with a lot of personality, and aims to offer as many broad laughs and shorn tire treads as its limited budget will allow. And in the space left over, it tries to squeeze in a little heart. If only it accomplished everything it set out to do, it would be a model for anyone looking to revive the sort of genre fare that kept drive-ins in business.
Making the most of his low-key charisma, Shepard plays a car enthusiast living in the middle of nowhere as part of the witness-protection program after testifying against his best friend (Bradley Cooper, sporting blond dreadlocks) in the wake of a botched robbery. Life in exile isn’t so bad, however: He’s become friends with the bumbling marshal in charge of keeping him safe (Tom Arnold) and picked up a devoted girlfriend in the form of Kristen Bell (Shepard’s real-life partner), an overachieving sociology professor specializing in non-violent conflict resolution. All is going well enough until Bell gets the call to interview for her dream job in Los Angeles, the one place Shepard really should not go. But love trumps safety, and the couple soon strike out for the West Coast in Shepard’s tricked-out ’67 Lincoln Continental with Bell’s jealous ex-boyfriend (Michael Rosenbaum) and Arnold both in pursuit.
High-speed antics and spirited conversation follow, with one having the edge on the other. Though Shepard and Palmer clearly have a lot of fondness for old-style car stunts, only a few moments suggest they have the chops to match the films that inspired them. It’s fun, for a while, to watch the film contrive to get Bell and Shepard into different sorts of vehicles and race around different types of settings, but the actual payoff to those contrivances isn’t all that thrilling. And as the bad guy, Cooper doesn’t really inspire much of a sense of danger, in spite of the film’s best efforts to badass him up. But as the star and writer, Shepard comes off well, generating sparky chemistry with Bell and zigzagging the dialogue in unexpected directions, like an extended argument in which Bell counters every defense he offers for throwing around the word “fag.” However, the long stretches between moments like that, when the action plods along as the film moves from point A to point Z, keep Hit & Run from transcending agreeability and becoming memorable. There really ought to be a lot more movies like Hit & Run, but only if they’re just a little bit better.