In adolescence many of us were cinematically weaned on (or permanently stunted by; I'll let the courts decide) the likes of "Dirty Mary Crazy Larry" and "Gone in Sixty Seconds," rough-edged and disreputable time-killers whose co-stars were whatever the lead characters were driving.
"Hit & Run" is a throwback to such films, in addition to ripping off the late Tony Scott's "True Romance" in its fairy tale love and persistent brutality. Screenwriter, co-director (with David Palmer) and co-star Dax Shepard has acknowledged as inspirations such vehicular-based hits as "Smokey and the Bandit" and "The Cannonball Run."
Stripped to its essence, the car chase, when done right, remains one of the medium's great glories of figurative and literal escapism, and it's a stern test of a filmmaker's priorities and willingness, or unwillingness, to cheat. To wit: When Quentin Tarantino made "Death Proof," the often-dazzling highlight of "Grindhouse," he took care to let the stunts and the action look and feel legit — not the physics-defying result of the usual digital effects, but old school in the most bracing way.
Although Shepard clearly is a huge muscle-car enthusiast, and although the "Parenthood" TV series ensemble member has his fans, "Hit & Run" is pretty rancid as comedy. Worse, the chases are strictly amateur hour, all shortcut editing and no gut satisfaction.
Shepard plays Charlie Bronson, a reformed robbery getaway driver living in a small, hot central California town with his educator girlfriend, played by Kristen Bell, Shepard's real-life fiancee. Annie doesn't know about Charlie's past, only that he has one. Charlie's accident-prone Witness Protection Program overseer (Tom Arnold, in a strained, unfunny turn) is easy to shake, once Charlie and Annie hit the road in order to get Annie to LA for a job. But they're pursued by Annie's ex, and Charlie's former snakelike cohorts — Bradley Cooper plays the chief snake, in dreadlocks — who have scores to settle with their driver.
The script takes its central relationship seriously, which leads to an unusual number of soul-searching conversations and which mitigates, to some degree, the general wash of wisecracks regarding all sorts of rape. Shepard wants it both ways: His character is meant to be a sweet lunkhead who uses words such as "fag" and insults Asians, but by movie's end he's learned his lesson and is deserving of his woman. Like the "Hangover" films, "Hit & Run" trades in a very violent brand of comedy that sells. I don't buy it; it's not slapstick, it's just viciousness. There's a set piece in which Cooper's character humiliates and wallops a menacing African-American stranger, and it threw me straight out of the movie.
That scene's played for laughs, of course. But even with its retro vibe, "Hit & Run" is merely the latest picture, more modestly scaled than most, to give the catch-all notion of the B movie a bad name, deserving of a new category: the D movie.
'Hit & Run' -- 1 1/2 stars
MPAA rating: R (for pervasive language including sexual references, graphic nudity, some violence and drug content)
Running time: 1:35