The comedy-thriller “Hit and Run” includes a trio of vengeful bank robbers, two of whom dress as you’d expect of middle-class bohemians in Southern California. The third, however, stands out by wearing a black suit, white shirt and black necktie. The character does so little else in the film that he seems to function primarily as a walking homage to Quentin Tarantino.
Two decades before “Hit and Run,” Tarantino made a splash on the indie film circuit with “Reservoir Dogs,” a violent, pop-savvy heist film so twisty and confident that it didn’t even show the actual heist. Filled with hit men and stickup artists with similarly monochromatic costumes, “Reservoir Dogs” and its follow-up, “Pulp Fiction,” launched a spate of copycat crime movies in the 1990s, filled with bloodshed and ironic musical choices. “Hit and Run” could have signaled yet another tired Tarantino-style nostalgia flick, but, fortunately, filmmaker and star Dax Shepard spends little time crafting cosmetic similarities, in favor of showing comparable affection for his characters and how they talk.
Shepard, who wrote the screenplay and co-directed the film with David Palmer, plays Charlie Bronson, a laid-back resident of Milton, California. Years ago, Charlie fingered a gang of bank robbers for shooting a security guard and now is in the witness protection program, under the observation of Randy (Tom Arnold), a high-strung and incompetent U.S. marshal. When Charlie’s girlfriend, Annie (Kristen Bell of “Veronica Mars”), gets an interview for a one-of-a-kind job in Los Angeles, he impulsively decides to leave the program and drive her there, rather than break up or pressure her to remain in the sleepy college town.
Annie’s ex-boyfriend, Gil (Michael Rosenbaum), opposes her leaving with Charlie and uncovers Charlie’s real name, “Yul.” (It’s not a coincidence that Charlie’s real name and alias both refer to members of “The Magnificent Seven.”) Gil not only pursues the couple down the highways, he alerts Alex Dimitri (Bradley Cooper in white-guy dreadlocks), the robber Charlie ratted out.
In the midst of various highway chases, Charlie admits that, while he never technically lied to Annie, he took a highly selective approach to the truth in their year-long relationship. It fact, he was the getaway driver at the fateful bank robbery and had driven in about a dozen previous heists. Soon the couple has practically a caravan of pursuers, including Alex, Randy, Gil and a pair of sheriff’s deputies.
Where Tarantino’s early work paid tribute to vintage French, American and Hong Kong gangster movies, “Hit and Run” reveals a similar fondness for American car chase flicks of the 1970s. Shepard creates a mystique around Charlie’s black Lincoln Continental with a rebuilt 700-horsepower engine. After Charlie asks Annie for permission to drive at NASCAR-level speeds to shake their tails, he starts doing doughnuts, with smoke billowing in slow motion while Lou Rawls croons “Pure Imagination” from “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” Perhaps for budgetary reasons, the chases emphasize engine-gunning buildup more than high-velocity follow-through, but the film shows a contagious love for various makes of muscle car.
Shepard makes a running joke of how trigger-happy, accident-prone Randy has mishaps that leave his car in increasingly terrible shape, a slapstick throwback to car crash movies of earlier generations. But “Hit and Run” firmly plants itself in the era of contemporary social networking. Gil tips off Alex via a message on his Facebook page. Characters Google each other rather than hire private detectives. A smartphone app for finding sex partners helps rescue one character.
Despite Charlie’s high-adrenaline past, Shepard gives a funny, laid-back performance, like Owen Wilson at his most conciliatory. Even in hostage situations, he’s persistently apologetic and eager to defuse bad feelings. One particularly tense confrontation turns into an emotionally open heart-to-heart chat, then goes on a peculiar tangent about the comparative sexual charisma of various ethnic groups that’s like a piece of observational stand-up comedy.
A film truism holds that actors who hook up in real life never show the same kind of chemistry on screen, but Shepard and Bell, who’ve been a couple for years, prove to be exceptions to the rule. The film opens with Charlie and Annie sharing some casual pillow talk, a scene that sets an easygoing tone for their relationship and the rest of the movie. It’ll be interesting to see Shepard’s next film.
Although Annie expresses justifiable anger when she learns the extent of Charlie’s deceptions, against our better judgment we root for them to stick together: they seem made for each other. As Stealers Wheel might say, with clowns to the left of them and jokers to the right, Annie’s stuck in the middle with Yul.
“Hit and Run.” With Dax Shepard, Kristen Bell. Directed by Shepard and David Palmer. Rated R. 100 minutes. At area theaters.