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Trying to find the right friction point between muscle cars and political correctness could stall any vehicle, even one custom-designed by a veteran of clunker comedies who got his start playing “Vomiter at the Party.”

Indeed, actor-writer-director Dax Shepard had only one of two proven options when approaching Hit & Run, a romantic comedy that uses car chases and gunplay in the same measure as pillow-talk and he-said-she-said relationship dysfunction.

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The tall, and believably handsome, talent could have turbo-charged over the top and generated the same gratuitous skid marks so well executed in Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.

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Or, he could have gone for a throwback to 1977′s Smokey and the Bandit, the hugely successful action-comedy starring Sally Field and Burt Reynolds that turned every middle-class American (because this species existed back then) into a CB-radio squawking wannabe.

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Smokey and the Bandit conjured a certain kind of magic from its tailpipe thanks to the chemistry between Field and Reynolds, two established stars who appeared to be having a pretty good time winking at their own celebrity behind the wheel of the now-iconic black Trans Am.

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That said, Shepard and co-star Kristen Bell may have some natural chemistry, but they aren’t towering pop culture icons, which means Hit & Run is really a string of hit-and-miss moments that follow Shepard as he plays a getaway driver who leaves witness protection to take his girlfriend to Los Angeles.

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Charlie (Shepard) used to be part of a bank-robbing gang lead by Alex (Bradley Cooper), but when things got ugly and someone died, Charlie turned angel and testified against his old buddy.

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For years, Charlie has been living in a small town, dating the nice teacher, Annie (Bell), minding his own business and making friends with the local marshal, Randy (Tom Arnold).

Inevitably, things go kerflooey when Annie gets a once-in-a-lifetime job offer in Los Angeles: She has to get there in a hurry, and Charlie insists on taking her there himself, because that’s what an emancipated man in witness protection does for the woman he loves.

No sooner does Charlie get behind the wheel of his souped-up vintage Lincoln Continental (yeah, one with suicide doors), than Alex traces down his whereabouts with a desire to get even.

It’s a mad, mad, mad, mad world of chase scenes from this point onward, with little more than low-budget donuts on dirt roads and a rather fortunate encounter with an abandoned airfield at the climax to decorate this movie that bears a striking resemblance to a gas-station calendar.

All the cars gleam and sparkle with the shine of optimism and the wax of the American dream, but everything that surrounds them is greasy, abandoned and largely broken.

Shepard is a smart guy, as his truly classic performance in the perpetually underrated Idiocracy makes abundantly clear, so you get the feeling he’s conscious of all this — the same way he’s conscious of every film that’s gone before.

Whether it was a part of the initial script, or something he felt he had to add after Nicolas Winding Refn gave us.

Ryan Gosling in Drive, isn’t clear, but Shepard gives Refn a nod with the name he gives his own character: Charlie Bronson.

Refn’s first English-language feature was a movie called Bronson, about the most-violent prisoner in Britain. Charlie tells his galpal he chose the name Charles Bronson in reference to the criminal, not the famous actor, for whom it was also a pseudonym (nee Charles Dennis Buchinsky).

You see how boring all these clever references can be? They pull the viewer away from the core drama through largely meaningless asides. Shepard tries to make them fun, sweet and trenchantly sarcastic, but it really depends on personal opinion.

For instance, there’s a running plot line about the using the term “that’s for fags” when one really means “that’s lame:” Annie is offended by the gay slur, and eventually, Charlie realizes she’s right.

Yet, you can hear the gears grinding beneath the hood. Shepard wants to pop the clutch and go bat-crap crazy. He wants to take a victory lap around Daytona with Ricky Bobby and wave his juvenile freak flag, but he doesn’t.

He keeps it in his proverbial pants. That’s progressive behaviour for a guy who clearly likes beefy transmissions and old school bodies, but it makes for a pretty lame muscle car of a movie — which, oddly enough, lends this conflicted mess a hazy sense of charm.

Dax Shepard has modeled his new film Hit & Run—which he wrote, co-directed, and stars in—after his youthful favorite, Smokey and the Bandit. Like Burt Reynolds, he persuaded a bunch of his friends to join him in making a lighthearted car-chase movie with elements of comedy and romance. Far too often, such labors of love turn out to be more fun for the participants than they are for the audience. This is a happy exception.

From the opening scene, featuring Shepard and real-life fiancée Kristen Bell making pillow talk, you can tell that Hit & Run isn’t a cookie-cutter comedy. It doesn’t pander to or, worse, wink at its audience. This film’s characters are unusually articulate, and all that smart dialogue provides a disarming contrast to the action/road-movie scenes.

Shepard’s troupe includes Bradley Cooper (sporting dreadlocks, no less) as an ex-friend turned bitter enemy, Tom Arnold as a bumbling federal marshal, Kristin Chenoweth as Bell’s sharp-tongued boss, plus Joy Bryant, David Koechner, Jess Rowland, Michael Rosenbaum, and Beau Bridges. Each character gets a chance to shine in a series of funny, unpredictable episodes, as Shepard drives his girlfriend from Central California to Los Angeles for a job interview—little dreaming that he’ll be tailed by his former confederate in a bank-robbery gang.

Hit & Run is clearly a low-budget, DIY-type movie, but it’s original and thoroughly engaging. I went in with no expectations and had a good time.

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