Hannah Strong


Hit Man – first-look review

Richard Linklater and Glen Powell team up for a highly entertaining black comedy about a mild-mannered college professor who becomes a fake hit man.

Every few years or so, an article pops up lamenting that there are no real movie stars anymore. I go back and forth on whether or not I agree – certainly an uptick in social media usage has removed much of the mystique that once surrounded the rich and famous.

Also, a glut of formulaic franchises and sequels – not to mention the notion films are treated as equations rather than art by many studios – means it’s more rare to see the lightning in a bottle that is the perfect marriage of good material and good performance captured on screen. But every so often a person comes along who gives me hope that the je ne sais quoi of the movie star isn’t dead. The latest to do so is Glen Powell, who stole the show last year in Top Gun: Maverick and now teams up with his good buddy Richard Linklater for a delightfully dark comedy, inspired (mostly) by a true story.

Texas natives Powell and Linklater have known each other for years; the former was 17 when he had a small part in Fast Food Nation and supporting roles in 2017’s Everybody Wants Some! and 2022’s Apollo 10 1⁄2: A Space Age Childhood. This marks their largest-scale collaboration to date, with Powell serving as lead, co-writer and producer on Hit Man.

Based on a 2001 Texas Monthly article (written by Skip Hollandsworth, who also co-wrote Bernie with Linklater) about a man named Gary Johnson, the film’s premise is both pleasantly familiar and amusing: an agreeable college psychology professor/part-time police wiretapper is forced to step up and pose as a hit man to help out his team, only to discover a hidden talent for the work that inevitably leads him into an entirely more dangerous situation. It’s a classic fish-out-of-water concept, which means execution is everything. Luckily Linklater and Powell prove a winning combination.

Gary is a dorky bespectacled divorcee who lives with his two cats – Id and Ego – and enjoys birding in his spare time. The students he teaches at the University of New Orleans think he’s a square, as do his colleagues at his part-time police surveillance gig, Claudette (Retta), Jasper (Austin Amelio) and Phil (Sanjay Rao). But Gary’s convinced he doesn’t mind; he’s happy being alone. Anyway, he has to deal with a minor work crisis when undercover sting operative, Jasper, is suspended, Gary has to step in and pose as a hitman for a meeting with a suspect. Much to Gary’s surprise, he has a knack for the work, and his interest in psychology means he delights in creating just the right persona to make a mark crack.

It’s in his unusual side hustle that Gary meets Madison (Adria Arjona), a frightened housewife who is looking for someone to ‘take care of’ her abusive husband. He’s posing as Ron, a suave but sensitive assassin who is everything Gary isn’t – disarmed by Madison’s vulnerability, he falters and lets her go with some advice instead of covertly prompting her to incriminate herself on record. From then on their paths are intertwined, with the lines between Gary and his alter-ego Ron inevitably beginning to blur.

Powell is delightful here. He shifts personas with ease as Gary perfects the art of becoming exactly the person that his ‘clients’ need him to be, and it’s very easy for the audience to get taken in by his affable nature, particularly given he narrates the film with a chipper voice-over. He shifts from dorky psych prof to slick contract killer with an ease that suggests Powell is capable of much more than Hollywood is currently giving him. It’s no easy role either – Gary is an “average” man, acting as many other men, and Powell has to capture Gary’s performance within his own performance (how meta). He’s a natural though, nailing the physical comedy with ease. All the more exciting for his next project – a romantic comedy with the equally charismatic Sydney Sweeney.

But Linklater uses the familiarity of a good old-fashioned caper to hide something more sinister: Gary’s shifting sense of morality when romance comes into the picture. What starts as a fun challenge for the psychology buff – becoming different people as part of his job – quickly becomes reality. How easy is it for a person to completely change who they are, Linklater and Powell ask. Do you simply have to start acting like a new man – and does this make you capable of things that previously seemed unthinkable?

While we talk of movie stars dying out, it also feels as though the comedy genre has suffered a decline too. It’s a pleasure then to find a film as effortlessly funny as Hit Man. The smart script and excellent casting (shout out to the supporting cast, as essential as Powell in pulling this off) make the film a relentless joy, as well as the impressive hair and make-up work that sees Gary transform into his various contract killer characters. It’s easy to get swept up in the humour of it all and overlook the rather dark third act, but this balance is integral to the film’s success. What Gary wants us to believe is a love story actually looks closer to a tale of blossoming sociopathy.

I’ll confess to being a bit of a Linklater sceptic (a Linkhater, if you will) who doesn’t like Boyhood and thinks the Before trilogy is overrated. I will cop to vibing more with his comedies, so perhaps it’s a case of Linklater and Powell appealing to my sympathies here. But Hit Man truly is a breath of fresh air; that rare film that manages to nail the perfect combination of a charismatic lead, sharp script, and a murky undercurrent of darkness. It’s a genuinely riotous time at the cinema and concrete proof Powell is perhaps our brightest hope when it comes to keeping the notion of the movie star alive.

Published 5 Sep 2023

Tags: Glen Powell Richard Linklater

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