By Ed Symkus
There was a time when car chase movies were king. When Steve McQueen tore up the road behind the wheel of a Ford Mustang in Bullitt (1968) and Gene Hackman took on the public transit system with his Pontiac Le Mans in The French Connection (1970); when Burt Reynolds showed what a Pontiac Trans Am could do in Smokey and the Bandit (1977) and Jake and Elwood Blues went on a cross country ride in a Dodge Monaco in The Blues Brothers (1980).
Car chase movies have come and gone, but this one, featuring, at least in the first half, a 1967 Lincoln Continental with, mind you, 700 horses under the hood, has a few extras. Along with the wild action, you get some slapstick comedy and a wholly believable hunk of heart.
Written in just under three weeks and co-directed by Dax Shepard (along with his pal David Palmer), the film has the shaggy dog feel of, well, something that was written in just under three weeks. It’s about Charlie Bronson (Shepard), a fellow who’s been holed up in a little town, courtesy of witness protection, for a few years, but has decided to come out so his girlfriend Annie (Kristen Bell) can take a job back in L.A., from whence he fled after turning state’s evidence on a bank robber.
The gist of the film is that the road trip back to L.A. turns into a run for his life, since the fellow he ratted on (a curiously dreadlocked Bradley Cooper), angry as all get-out, has been tipped off and is after him. Hence, that car chase, and it’s a good one, split up into sections in order to give the actors time to deliver dialogue, tell stories, be funny, get romantic.
That’s where the believability factor comes in. There’s a whole lot of autobiography going on. In the film, Charlie (yes, it’s his witness protection name) and Annie have been together for a year. As the story unfolds, she suddenly starts learning all kinds of things about his past, about, as he puts it, “the old me.” In real life, Shepard and Bell have been an item for about five years. Both have said in recent interviews that their first year together consisted of Shepard revealing tidbits such as his past drinking and drug abuse, as well as his tendency not to back down from fistfights.
The combination of Shepard, the writer, having a good ear for dialogue, and Shepard and Bell, the actors, not being afraid to let their own lives kind of hang out onscreen, makes for some refreshing movie watching. Of course, that could get a little tired after a while, so the script is peppered with a little something for everyone.
Tom Arnold, playing Randy, a smalltown cop who’s helping Charlie hide out, but having a great deal of comic trouble with moving vehicles and guns, provides most of the comedy relief, and Arnold is on fire here, running around yelling, ready to take a pratfall like a pro. Cooper, still best known for his Hangover roles, doesn’t go the comedy route this time. Instead he pulls off an almost-convincing bad guy part, sometimes oozing menace, sometimes just standing around looking odd (note: this man should never wear dreads).
There’s a surfeit of cameos, only one of which will be revealed here: Beau Bridges as Charlie’s dad; a bit of irony: Amongst the plentiful violence, we learn that Annie has a “non-violent conflict doctorate”; and many opportunities for Shepard and Bell to react to each other via funny, snappy, insightful talk and a wide variety of expressions on their faces. These people are fun to hang out with. The movie could’ve gotten away with being a little longer.