Linklater and Powell Create a ‘Hit’ With Latest Release

“Hit Man” is the type of film they don’t make these days.

Star Turn: Glen Powell shines as a professor who poses as a hitman to help the police with sting operations.
Published June 7, 2024 2:13 PM
3 min read

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“Hit Man” is the type of film they don’t make these days. It’s a romantic comedy with an actual personality. Based on the true story of a New Orleans professor who helped the police catch conspirators by posing as a hitman-for-fire, director Richard Linklater spins the facts into a snazzy love story and a treatise on the masks we wear. It’s sexy, smart, and charmingly shaggy, and the only snag is that it basically has gone straight to Netflix. This film demands to be seen in a theater, where we can be collectively delighted by its twists and turns.

It stars Glen Powell as Gary Johnson, a mild-mannered professor of psychology and philosophy who works for the police as a technical assistant on sting operations. The film skims over how Gary got so good at computers and why, in a pinch, the police felt comfortable having a civilian actually pose as a hitman one day, and we’re better for it. What we really want is to see this nerd transform into the coolest guy ever before our eyes, and Powell gives us what we want. It’s a lot like watching an actor turn into a star in a single role.

After successfully nailing one would-be killer, Gary becomes the police’s go-to fake hitman, and with his philosophy on the pliable nature of identity in tow, he researches each suspect and creates a new hitman identity to satisfy each of their expectations. It’d be easy to see the film as a metaphor for the acting process (Powell co-wrote the script with Linklater), but “Hit Man” is more interested in how we can act our way into a new life. When Gary meets the beautiful Maddy (Adria Arjona), falls for her, and convinces her not to kill her husband, they embark on a sizzling affair in which he becomes the person he always wanted to be. Not the murderer-for-hire part, but just a far more bold and confident version of himself. All he has to do is keep up the facade, and the facade becomes real.

It’s rare for a film this entertaining to have so many ideas in it. That’s a high-wire act that few can pull off, and a new achievement for Linklater. The indie-focused director has made a few big, commercial films (“School of Rock” remains his biggest hit), but never before has he so perfectly blended his soulful, searching ethos with a crowd-pleasing sensibility. There are moments of narrative ingenuity in “Hit Man,” like its climax that finds Gary and Maddy working their way out of trouble with the police listening in, that will induce a smile in even the most cynical of moviegoers. Even the film’s shagginess somehow works in its favor; some scenes go on too long, and others could have used a dialogue-polisher, but everyone involved seems to be enjoying it so much that we can’t be moved to complain.

Of course, its greatest ingenuity is Powell himself, who has quickly risen from a supporting actor in Linklater’s 2016 baseball cult classic “Everybody Wants Some!!” to the verge of stardom with “Top Gun: Maverick” and this year’s surprise smash “Anyone But You.” “Hit Man” might as well be an acting showcase for Powell, who gets to charm off the pants of a beautiful young woman, while also engaging in deep costume and accent work in his parade of fake assassins. It turns out there is little that Powell can’t do, although I wouldn’t be surprised if we see him lean into his movie stardom and away from character work. In another era, we would ask for more from him, but with our paucity of stars who can actually carry a film like “Hit Man,” we should be grateful for what we have.

As cinema works through its own identity crisis, it would be wise to take a lesson from this film, which embodies numerous genres in which Hollywood has lost interest. It’s a romantic comedy for adults, and a film that prioritizes the quirks of its humans over stale but familiar intellectual property or potential franchises. It’s a more difficult formula to recreate because it requires inspiration and trust that viewers will recognize a good thing when they see it. In “Hit Man,” it’s undeniable.

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