The fact that Charlie Bronson is the name of Dax Shepherd’s protagonist in the Shepherd-co-directed, Shepherd-written and Shepherd-starring “Hit and Run” tells you everything you need to know about the film. Particularly considering the film’s Bronson, a former getaway driver in deep trouble with a colorful gang of criminals, isn’t even using his real name. No, Bronson is the name he chose to gift himself upon entering witness protection, feeling his own name was unsatisfactorily macho. It’s also a reference upon a reference upon a reference -- he’s chosen to name himself after the British criminal who renamed himself Charles Bronson, whom we’ve already seen in the film “Bronson.”
It’s these layers of artifice that fueled Shepherd’s mock-doc from years ago, “Brother’s Justice.” In that forgotten piece of fluff, Shepherd played himself as an egotistical minor celebrity who sought to begin an action career based upon one flimsy premise of a film. Shepherd wants to sing the song, but he doesn’t know the words, having no self-defense training at any level, rendering “Brother’s Justice” a minor curio of an inside joke, the sort of thing that will be incomprehensible in thirty years when Shepherd is long gone.
Few predicted that film was actually foreshadowing the lanky journeyman’s genuine attempt at action heroism. What dooms “Hit and Run,” which, charitably, is not as generic as it’s name implies, is that the film itself comments on its own sincerity. When it’s not concerned with the husky, cinematic drone of a muscle car peeling out of a parking lot, it peppers the film with inane comedy bits, giving the film’s many bit players a chance to fumble around, turning Shepherd’s third generation “Vanishing Point” knockoff into a fourth-rate “Smokey and the Bandit.”
Onscreen, Shepherd appears tall enough to block out the sun, skinny and lithe in a way that benefits a chase film. Unfortunately, his monotone delivery, punctuated by bellowing outbursts, reminds one of Adam Sandler’s earlier days. While Sandler spoke in a sing-song boyish tone that seemed once charming, Shepherd’s intonation is that of a man who is almost always being sarcastic, and it’s impossible to tell when he’s mocking other characters or expressing his true feelings, particularly to his onscreen paramour and real-life partner Kristen Bell.
Bell’s Annie has an exciting new job and has to leave the small town in which they’ve settled, but Shepherd’s Bronson hasn’t revealed to her that he’s purposely laying low with a fake identity and existence. He opts to keep it that way, getting into his old getaway car and speeding her to the job interview despite violating his parole and incurring the exasperated scolding of his bumbling parole officer (Tom Arnold). He, in turn, earns the attention of two local cops, one of whom pursues him after he learns he is also homosexual through an Internet gay search engine for same sex couples to track each other. What was once an Orwellian nightmare is now a joke about coupling in a high speed car chase movie.
Annie’s brother (Michael Rosenbaum) also selects this opportunity to delve into his sister’s questionable partner and discovers Bronson’s past exploits. Through the wonders of the Internet ("Hit and Run" plays like a '90s film, with an attitude that Computers Can Do Anything!), he contacts the criminal in search of the wayward deserter. Enter a dreadlocked, sweatpants-wearing Bradley Cooper, who like most of this cast is ported over from “Brother’s Justice” despite theoretically having something of an A-List career. Cooper, a funny actor, is not a particularly complex one, and he takes a shot at being the film’s eccentric-but-dangerous baddie with a host of unconventional insecurities. Attempting to overplay by underplaying, Cooper ends up allowing his dubious yellow eyewear to do most of the heavy lifting.
When Shepherd gets behind the wheel, the film works as a straight-faced genre exercise, with the chemistry between Shepherd and Bell fueling concisely edited chase sequences. Shepherd’s unconventional looks and bizarre delivery help him in these scenarios -- he’s a lot like Barry Newman of “Vanishing Point” and “Fear is the Key,” his confidence behind the wheel painting him as a hero even if his countenance, and the lies that necessitate the multi-state chase, suggest otherwise. There’s a genuine unease to the idea that he and Annie may live happily ever after -- a scene where they debate Bronson’s supposedly surprising use of the word “faggot” goes nowhere and seems like an awkward contemporary revision to a film that consciously feels like a throwback, though it’s a workable way to illustrate that there may be a lack of compatibility with the Bronson who wants to marry the love of his life, and the real Bronson.
Unfortunately, Shepherd can’t resist a good (bad/very bad) joke once in awhile, so the dramatic tension of this set-up is constantly deflated. None of the peripheral characters serve the story in any way, though most have their own comedic bit they’re dying to enforce on our lead characters. Kristen Chenowith chimes in repeatedly as a motormouth associate of Annie’s who consistently advises her to take the job, but the film also sidelines itself so she can deliver monologues about sex and drugs that drags the film’s momentum to a halt. Literally every side player has a similar digression, none moreso than the two ugly incidents that color Cooper’s pachouli-stink baddie.
In our first scene with him, he encounters a large black man buying what he views is substandard dog food. After giving this man a lecture (the man appears to be both dim and belligerent), Cooper takes him behind the market, ties his neck around a leash, and forces him to choke on the very same dog food while on his hands and knees. Later, Cooper admits to being raped in prison, leading to Bronson running down a list of minorities that might be responsible. It’s a riff that goes on forever -- at the very most, these tangents are insensitive and disgusting. At the least, they’re depriving us of a few gnarly car chase sequences so one of the stars of “Punk’d” can mock the supposed femininity of Asian men. Like most of “Hit and Run,” it’s not a great use of your time. [C]