Starring Dax Shepard, Kristen Bell. Written by Dax Shepard. Directed by Dax Shepard and David Palmer. 14A. 100 min. Opens Aug. 22.
If Quentin Tarantino has taught us anything, it’s that violence and comedy go together like a Big Kahuna burger and Sprite. Clearly, Hit & Run writer/co-director Dax Shepard—who also wrote and directed the 2010 mockumentary called Brother’s Justice, which was never released in theatres—has done his homework. Like a safe mainstream take on True Romance, his first feature to get a wide release lets the sweet nothings pile up faster than the body count.
Shepard plays Charlie, who lives blissfully in a charming old house in the middle of nowhere with his girlfriend, Annie (Kristen Bell, Shepard’s IRL fiancée), a professor at the local college. When she gets an interview at a prestigious school in L.A., Charlie dusts off his custom-built hot rod and the two head off for the city. The rest of the movie is a journey of discovery for Annie, who knows, as we find out eventually, that Charlie is in the Witness Protection Program. Their sugary sweet relationship starts to sour as she learns the truth: He used to drive a getaway car for his bank-robber friends, led by Alex (a dreadlocked Bradley Cooper). And thanks to Annie’s nosy ex-boyfriend, Charlie’s old crew find out he’s on his way back to L.A., and set out to intercept him.
Shepard takes his time establishing the plot, allowing room for the characters to develop while building an air of volatile suspense; the action sputters like a leaky faucet before flowing out in full force. Bradley Cooper is excellent as Alex, whose white-boy dreads, Adidas sweatpants, and ever-present yellow sunglasses scream “California stoner.” But the character is no rehash of James Franco’s pot-pusher in Pineapple Express—Alex is a hothead with a penchant for cruel, spiteful violence. As the U.S. Marshall assigned to protect Charlie, Randy (Tom Arnold) is a bumbling fool who can’t keep his gun under control, a recurring gag that plays out cunningly in the third act.
Though Hit & Run is technically Shepard’s sophomore effort as a writer/director, it’s a confident foray into the big leagues: It has the sharp writing, star power, and distribution deal to transform him from that vaguely familiar guy from NBC’s Parenthood into a bona fide leading man.