Richard Linklater’s features since his masterwork Boyhood (2014) — Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood, Where’d You Go, Bernadette, Last Flag Flying, and Everybody Wants Some!! — have been a decidedly mixed bag, but Hit Man finds him having a blast with a sexy black comedy boasting a sly streak of poignancy. Redoubtable supporting player Glen Powell (Top Gun: Maverick) here offers a career-boosting, range-flaunting turn as a geeky academic who stumbles into doing a very specific kind of undercover work for the police: posing as, per the title, a hit man.
But when he falls for Adria Arjona’s saucy semi-fatale femme — who at one point tries to hire him to kill her husband — farcical maneuvers are required to keep both of them out of trouble. Given the chemistry between the two leads that could restart a dormant nuclear power plant, viewers are likely to come away sated with pleasure after seeing this delightful work. Nevertheless, it will take a hefty marketing push as well as good word of mouth to lure viewers likely to know only Linklater’s name on the poster.
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Based on what the opening titles describe as a “somewhat true story,” the film casts Powell as a real guy named Gary Johnson who was profiled by Skip Hollandsworth for a Texas Monthly article in 2001. With the help of cheap-looking glasses, a listless hairdo and the trademark chinos of defeated masculinity, the naturally handsome Powell passes convincingly in the opening sequence as the sad-sack nudnik, a divorced professor who owns two cats, Id and Ego, and teaches psychology and philosophy. In fact, he’s first met giving a lecture on identity, a slightly on-the-nose gesture toward the film’s core theme: How much can people truly change? Does pretending to be someone long enough effectively make you that person in some way? It’s a question surely every actor, whether they’re deep into the Method or not, ponders at some point.
In his spare time, Gary helps the New Orleans Police Department out with the equipment they need for undercover work, like the wires used to record conversations from afar and such. (The real Johnson lived in Houston, but Louisiana makes for an atmospheric location without once featuring Bourbon Street or any of the other cliché landmarks.) When Jasper (Austin Amelio), the skeevy undercover cop who usually pretends to be an assassin for hire, fails to show up at the last minute, the police officers Gary works with most of the time (Retta and Sanjay Rao, a wry double act) persuade him to step in because he’s already “perfectly forgettable”-looking.
But this act of desperation turns out to be inspired casting when Gary proves to be a natural, good at thinking fast on his feet and adept at sinking into a character. He has to walk a fine line and get the prospective client, who contacted the imaginary hitman through various underworld contacts, to say they want Gary to kill someone in order to avoid the case being thrown out because of police entrapment. (It’s a good thing the script makes this clear, because some viewers may think from the start that this sure looks like textbook entrapment.)
Quickfire montages soon show some of the different cases Gary successfully works, many of them culled from Hollandsworth’s original article. Again, underscoring the acting parallels but with a touch of gigolo about the process, Gary delights in trying out different looks, hairpieces, fake mustaches and so on in a quest to incarnate the kind of hitman he imagines each client wants. The persona he adopts for prospective client Madison Masters (Arjona) is Ron, a stubbled stud who is basically just Gary but without the glasses and with better clothes. Instead of going for the arrest like he should, Ron/Gary talks Madison out of taking out a hit on her abusive, controlling husband, perhaps influenced by her sultry beauty. When she gets in touch with him months later to say thanks and inform him that she’s left her ex Ray (Evan Holtzman), the two get it on in some frankly very sexy bedroom scenes, even though Ron insists they have to confine their relationship to her place and not venture out as an actual couple.
Viewers well-versed in the conventions of erotic thrillers will sense immediately something is a bit off when Maddy manages to persuade Ron/Gary to come out dancing with her at a club where — what a coincidence! — Ray just happens to be arriving as they’re leaving. Angry words exchanged between him and Maddy compel Ron/Gary, introduced to Ray as her boyfriend, to defend his lady’s honor. But in the process, he realizes she’s not been entirely honest with him given it turns out she’s not divorced from Ray yet. Faster than you can say Double Indemnity, things take a dark turn.
But fascinatingly, there’s a dawn after the darkness, and the film really pays off on its commitment to questioning whether action really is character and vice versa. The final payoff is wonderfully subversive, and feels earned by a build-up where Ron/Gary has to decide how much to reveal about himself and how far he will go for Maddy, a much more complicated character than he first thought. If she turned out at first not to be the killer that the police, hoping for another booking, thought she would be, she also turns out to be no girl scout either.
Arjona’s performance here should rightly draw fresh attention to her and elevate the quality of roles she’s offered. Trampy in the best kind of way but also smart as a Stanwyck, her Maddy is the kind of bad girl you can’t help rooting for. It helps that she has ace comic timing, as does Powell; the duets that are their lovers’ talks are tightly in sync, melodic like the best lovers in Linklater films often are. (Think Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in the Before series, but in miniature.)
Edited by Linklater’s regular collaborator Sandra Adair (who has been with him since Dazed and Confused in 1993), the film has a screwball zing to the pacing that seems grounded, like so many of Linklater’s movies, in a depthless affection for actors. The performances are framed so lovingly, from the leads right down to every petty criminal and background artist, that the craftsmanship becomes barely noticeable — just a delivery vehicle for a cracking tall(ish) tale.
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