Comic actor Dax Shepard isn’t the kind of guy who comes to mind when trying to cast a Hollywood action movie. After putting himself in the driver’s seat with “Hit & Run,” however, the goofy-acting “Punk’d” host merits future consideration. An unexpectedly satisfying date-movie spin about a redneck lothario (Shepard) who confronts old demons in order to drive his booksmart g.f. (Kristen Bell) to a big-city job interview, this low-budget B movie looks poised to surprise, potentially rivaling the success Open Road Films enjoyed with “The Grey” earlier this year.
Arriving on the heels of “Brother’s Justice,” a 2010 mock doc in which Shepard and co-director David Palmer explored the possibility of transforming the cheeky prankster into a Chuck Norris-style action hero, “Hit & Run” represents a far savvier vehicle for such a career rewrite than the Z-grade exploitation pics pitched in that film. Even so, “Hit & Run” relies on many of the same actors and friends — Tom Arnold, Bradley Cooper and David Koechner among them — to support the endeavor.
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Shepard plays Charlie Bronson, a meathead who seized the opportunity of entering the witness protection program to reinvent himself as a better man. Stuck in a backwater California town, Charlie seems admirably devoted to Annie (Bell), a brainy Ph.D. with a degree in conflict resolution who’s stuck teaching at a local community college. But their relationship is tested when her well-meaning boss (Kristin Chenoweth) threatens to fire Annie unless she interviews for her dream-job opening at UCLA.
At this point, neither the audience nor Annie knows anything about Charlie’s past, but little by little, clues emerge he’s a muscle-car aficionado originally christened Yul Perrkins, who may have witnessed a bank robbery back in L.A. For Charlie, Annie’s job opportunity means defying the inept federal agent (Arnold) assigned to his case, and then having to face the gang he testified against — a trio headed by Cooper.
Most of what follows is fairly stock stuff, but the formula works for several well-calculated reasons. Shepard (who wrote the script) tailors his character for maximum female appeal, playing Charlie/Yul as a scruffy fixer-upper. Whatever mess the guy was mixed up with back in L.A., Shepard looks a shave and a haircut away from being marriage material. He’s puppy-dog loyal, has a great sense of humor and always knows exactly what to say to soothe Annie’s neuroses.
Charlie caters to the macho contingent as well, earning Annie’s disapproval as he cracks off-color jokes at the expense of gays, hicks and other races — a canny cake-and-eat-it strategy by which the film can land the un-PC laugh, then correct it with a more enlightened rebuttal. Guys will also appreciate Charlie’s choice of wheels: a turbo-charged 1967 Lincoln Continental, the same sleek black sedan featured in “The Matrix.” If Annie is his wife-to-be, then this baby is his mistress.
Above all, real-life couple Shepard and Bell bring genuine chemistry to this high-energy excursion. Charlie may be the one behind the wheel, but Annie’s refreshingly intelligent and assertive personality elevates her beyond mere love interest, offsetting the script’s sophomoric tendencies with her erudite badinage.
Shepard and Palmer’s lean co-helming effort should connect especially well for middle-American auds seeking characters and stories that approximate the thrill of crashing tailgate parties and NASCAR races.
The fact that Shepard is chummy with a number of fairly recognizable actors merely sweetens the deal, with memorable turns from Arnold and Cooper, as well as a wonderfully abusive cameo by Beau Bridges. Arnold in particular enjoys a chance to monkey with his too-often-typecast hothead persona. Barely able to control his own firearm, his flustered “Smokey”-like lawman not only updates the ’70s-chase-movie formula by joining forces with Shepard’s affable bandit, he also gets his own romantic subplot, courtesy of Pouncer, a GPS-based gay-dating app clearly modeled after Grindr.
Shepard and Palmer’s shared direction is alternately energetic and easygoing, smoothly shifting gears between hot-rod and romantic comedy modes. Bradley Stonesifer’s sharp widescreen lensing gives the pic a pro finish. Version screened was missing end credits.