Contract killings never seem to work out all that well, at least in the movies or on television. Rarely does a job go smoothly and leave only the intended target dead and everyone else free, clear, and alive. In some cases, they never even happen, since the person aiming to hire a hitman gets caught before the job has been officially set up. Richard Linklater‘s Hit Man is a thoroughly entertaining portrait of a lonely man whose job is to convince others to pay him to kill for them, inventing personas and one very convincing alter ego in the process.
Hit Man is based on the true story of Gary Johnson, who worked for the police pretending to be a hitman for years. This cinematic version is, of course, embellished for dramatic purposes, with Gary (Glen Powell) working as a relatively boring university professor while moonlighting for the New Orleans Police Department.
After starting with some technical work, his first official undercover assignment brings out an unexpected side of him, and he quickly becomes a go-to asset for the department. His conviction rate is high and he almost always gets an incriminating instruction on tape, but that all changes when he meets Madison (Adria Arjona), who spends more time flirting with him than asking him about killing her abusive husband.
This is a film that isn’t meant to be taken entirely seriously, and there are many laughs to be found for those willing to be in on the joke. Gary gets very into his side hustle after startling his police colleagues (Retta and Sanjay Rao) during his first op with a disturbingly detailed description of how he would dispose of a body, and he then puts on outfits, wigs, tattoos, and accents to cater to each specific solicitor’s idea of what a hitman should be.
It’s an equally absurd and entertaining idea, one that’s great fun to watch. “Ron,” the persona he adopts when he meets Madison, is so self-assured and charming that even his co-workers assess that they’d rather hang out with him than Gary. The film similarly understands this, spending most of its time on Gary’s police work and Ron’s relationship with Madison rather than his regular life.
Powell, who had a great aviation double feature last year with Top Gun: Maverick and Devotion, has charisma to spare and does a terrific job transforming from an awkward civilian to an exceptional actor. Arjona, who has done TV work on Andor and Emerald City, is a fantastic foil for him, both enchanting Gary — er, Ron — and catching him consistently off-guard. The two have stellar chemistry and their scenes together are easily the film’s most enjoyable. Also having a good time are Retta and Rao, who enhance their supporting roles with amusing quips, though the entire cast (including Powell’s Everybody Wants Some!! co-star Austin Amelio) hits their marks, making this film a blast, indeed.
Hit Man is certainly not one of Linklater’s more serious think pieces like Boyhood or Waking Life, and it doesn’t contain the nostalgic drama of Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood or the “Before trilogy,” nor is it as zany as Bernie. Instead, Hit Man finds a perfect tone all its own, keeping its own ridiculousness in check, but still taking things as far as possible. Ultimately, this is a very fun, worthwhile ride that is best experienced with a large crowd.
Hit Man had its world premiere at the Venice International Film Festival before screening at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it is expected to quickly find distribution.