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Non-Review Review: Hit & Run

This movie was seen as part of Movie Fest, which was as much of a joy this year as it was last year. If not moreso.

Hit & Run is just a mess. It is, like its protagonists, all over the map. It never seems to be entirely sure of what it wants to be. Is it a high-speed comedy, a road-trip adventure, or a romantic comedy about an unconventional couple? There are moments when the film seems to work, on the verge of coming together, but there are also moments where it misses the mark completely. The problem is that Dax Shepard is not quite as versatile as Dax Shepard seems to think that he is.

Tres Bell?

Don’t get me wrong. Shepard has some nice moments. The comedian has a conversational style that lends itself to a certain style of comedy. There are a few nice moments of interaction between Shepard and his off-screen partner Kristen Bell that work reasonable well, if only because they seem like actual casual banter – discussing whether the use of a certain derogatory word is homophobic, for example. The problem comes when Shepard, as a leading actor, is asked to do anything else.

The “romantic”scenes between Ball and Shepard fall curiously short of the mark – perhaps evidence that chemistry in real life doesn’t always translate to the big screen. Alternatively, it might suggest that Shepard isn’t the strongest writer of dramatic material – the pair work well enough interacting casually, but any of the significant emotional moments end up feeling somewhat stilted and hallow. Bell is more capable of handling the material, but it does her very few favours. The problem is that the movie focuses very much on Shepard as the lead character.

Par for the course…

It is, to a certain extent, Bell’s character who drives the plot. She needs to get to Los Angeles for a job interview by a certain time, and her boyfriend promises to drive her. However, her character lacks a real emotional arc. Although she’s on a literal journey from point “A” to point “B”, it’s Shepard’s character who has the character arc – which might have been a major miscalculation. Shepard’s character, Charles Bronson, is the one leaving the witness protection program. He’s also the one dealing with his past as it catches up to him, who has to make things right and open up to his girlfriend about his past.

In fact, even the revelation that their relationship is based on a lie ultimately ends up being more about him than about her. We don’t, for example, watch her come to terms with his past so much as we watch him attempt to redeem himself. It means that the only fully-developed character in this chase movie is Charles Bronson as played by Dax Shepard, and it seems to have been a risky move that didn’t quite pay off.

Don’t worry, it makes as much sense in context…

Shepard is surrounded by a reasonably competent supporting cast. Michael Rosenbaum, Beau Bridges, David Koechner and Kristen Chenoweth all put in relatively decent performances in under-written roles. Bell makes a valiant effort as the other half of the couple who never seems to exist as anything more than a two-dimensional foil for her husband. Even Tom Arnold isn’t entirely bad as the Marshall tasked with recovering the wayward fugitive. Bradley Cooper is actually quite good as the movie’s designated villain and dog-lover. It’s not a fantastic performance, but it is a charming one.

The problem is that none of these actors ever get anything to sink their teeth into. Shepard wrote, co-directed and co-edited the film, and he seems to have been quite selfish in doing so. While he does some standard set-up-and-pay-off gags (the bowling ball, for example), the plot runs on contrived coincidence.

Who’s gonna drive you home tonight?

For example, based on what we see here, there seems to be only way to get to Los Angeles, as the characters are consistently tripping over one another on their adventures. Apparently it only takes a few hours to thoroughly explore an American town, as characters are quickly able to ascertain whether the pair are present or not. If there’s more than a moment or two of peace and quiet, you can be sure that our couple are bound to cross paths with one of their pursuers.

The script also seems to have a bit of difficulty settling on tone. It seems to fluctuate quite rapidly. Is it a farce? Is it just a wry road movie? Are there really any stakes? There’s one moment late in the film that underscores the difficulty the movie causes by shifting so rapidly between different approaches to the subject matter. Our heroes are in a field with guns pointed at their heads. We’re supposed to believe that this is life-and-death. Our hero’s father then proceeds to disarm the bad guys long enough for our leads to make a run for it. However, they leave the father behind, knocking the stuffing out of one of the two armed bad guys.

Hey, Arnold…

Now, in a regular thriller (even a light thriller), we’d be worried. The father is, after all, out-numbered here and the other bad guy has had long enough to recover his weapon while the father is pounding his friend into the ground. It isn’t even like killing the father would take more than half-a-second for the crook holding the gun, or that it would distract him from his chase. However, the crook takes off, leaving the sixty-odd-year-old man beating the stuffing out of his partner.

To be fair, it makes for a nice enough sight gag, but it’s like something taken from Austin Powers. It underscores that there’s no real threat to these bad guys, there’s no menace. So, in an instant, all the time spent illustrating that they are credible villains (including an introductory sequence for the main bad guy) feels strangely wasted. They might as well be Keystone Cops. There’s all manner of similar moments in the movie where it seems like Sheperd is trying to build suspense to make us worry about the fates of his leads, but he’s willing to frequently undercut that for a cheap sight-gag. That’s not to say either approach is bad or unworkable, merely that the two don’t work well together.

Gearing up…

Hit & Run feels like a bit of a waste. It’s a movie that should be an homage to the old cross-country adventure comedies that Hollywood produced in the seventies, but it just can’t seem to pick a right tone. It doesn’t help that Shepard makes for a nice conversational lead, but he can’t carry the heftier elements of the story.

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