A '70s car-chase flick for the Utne Reader set

Dax Shepard and Kristen Bell in Hit and Run.
Dax Shepard and Kristen Bell in Hit and Run.

Hit & Run, a new action comedy engineered by faintly Muppety co-director/writer/star Dax Shepard, is as much about running mouths as running motors, and injects estrogen into the few remaining enclaves of American testosterone, muscle cars, and FM cock rock.

Shepard plays Charlie Bronson, a 35-year old in Nowheresville whose life, as we see it, consists of pep-talking up his academic girlfriend, Annie (Kristen Bell), qualified for nothing better than teaching at the local community college by her over-rarified Ph.D. in conflict resolution. Conflict duly arrives when a prestigious opening at the first department specializing in her chosen field is announced, in Los Angeles. L.A. happens to be the one place Charlie can't go, though, for Charlie's name is not really Charlie, and he is in the Witness Protection Program — but he's in love, so he offers to drive Annie into the lion's den.

The name "Charles Bronson" and the '67 Lincoln Continental that Charlie takes out of mothballs for the trip should establish Hit & Run's cinematic pedigree, along with the pursuing Cannonball Run entourage Charlie and Annie pick up as they head west: Annie's absurd ex, Gil (Michael Rosenbaum); the federal marshal appointed to Charlie, Randy (Tom Arnold); and, finally, the former accomplice who Charlie's testimony put in jail, Alex Dimitri (Bradley Cooper) — for, contrary to the less-culpable backstory he has given Annie, Charlie used to be a bank-job getaway driver named Yul Perkins.

This is one of the many couple-fight issues that Charlie and Annie will have to find time to work through while running for their lives. Shepard and Bell are a couple offscreen, and Charlie and Annie's badinage is as much of friends as lovers, heavy on put down endearments ("You're so terrible on the eyes," "Fatass," etc.). Charlie and Annie's ongoing conversation and compromise — theirs is pointedly a relationship, not a romance — contravenes the precisely defined gender roles of chase-film predecessors like 1972's The Getaway, with Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw, and 1971's Vanishing Point, with Barry Newman's Kowalski protected in stoic, silent, impermeable masculinity by the chassis of his Dodge Challenger.

Hit & Run arranges a head-on collision between 1970s' individualism and 2012 p.c.: Where Kowalski hands out a whipping to degenerate homo hitchhikers, Charlie takes a dressing down from his girlfriend for using the word "fag" as a synonym for "lame," and there is a genial subplot involving gay law enforcement using a take off of the popular Grindr hookup app. Cooper's blond-dreadlocked Dimitri is introduced in the supermarket checkout line and pounces on a huge black guy after an exchange of words. While loaded with racial animus — Dmitri has a black girlfriend — the scene takes a "postracial" flip: The issue is the industrial dog food the guy was buying, for Dmitri is a conscientious animal-lover and buys top-shelf. Later, when Charlie pulls onto a college campus in a buggy, one of the many vehicles he adopts during the course of the film, he's heckled from offscreen for not "going green," to which he responds, "It's biodiesel, friend" — and who knows if he's joking?

Hit & Run was shot fast and cheap, using cars from gearhead Shepard's own garage. The stunt driving warrants only passing mention, for it's never more than serviceable — one wishes that Shepard and co-director David Palmer had spent a little more time studying Walter Hill and a little less on Hal Needham. The cast was apparently hastily cobbled together by calling in favors around Hollywood, which partially explains the film's premise that outlaws have the same concerns of right-thinking (read: left-leaning) actors. That even the criminal class have gone sensitive and finicky eco-conscious has some potential for comedy — or drama, as in Oliver Stone's undervalued Savages — but there's no single detail that might convince a viewer that the characters played by Dax Shepard and Bradley Cooper might ever have been compelled to steal for a living, and this alienates the crime picture from any social context or sense of actual danger, making it essentially a celebrity goof-off.

The action is of the all-in-good-fun variety, like Hit & Run's jibing about race and sexual orientation. In matters of caste, however, Shepard's middle-class sanitization of blue-collar drive-in material touches on the genuinely unpleasant. Is the supermarket beatdown innocent if the recipient can't afford the upscale dog food? "There is a certain type of person who is attracted to this vehicle," chirpy little Annie says of Charlie's Continental. "People who are . . . let's just call them rapists out of convenience." You get the sense, though, that she'd rather call them rednecks. So much of the movie plays like the mirror image inverse of the scene where the snooty sociologist goes into the honky-tonk in Every Which Way but Loose (1978) and gets dressed down by Clint Eastwood and his buddy — except this time, it's the honky-tonkers who are told what's what by the conscientious, well-bred liberal spark plug.

Spinning these Nixon-era folk archetypes into a chastening ideological 180 degree isn't the same thing as sophisticating them, though, and Hit & Run goes slack from the lack of any real back-and-forth. Annie's snobbery is never challenged. As to if she's in any way impressed or even — against all the dictates of her idea of herself — turned on by the revelation that her floppy mensch of a boyfriend has a heretofore-unexpected capacity for self-defense and getaway driving, there's no indication. It's a battle of the sexes that can't be called conflict management so much as "Yes, dear" concession.