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Hit Man review: At last, the star vehicle Glen Powell deserves

A man and a woman stand in a gun range in Hit Man.
“There’s a refreshing unpredictability to Hit Man. Like its main character, the movie keeps twisting itself into surprising new forms.”
  • Glen Powell's blazing star power
  • A funny, surprising plot
  • The rare sexy comedy for adults
  • It looks a little Netflix flat
  • Linklater is an imperfect fit for screwball noir

It was Richard Linklater who first saw what the whole world is now seeing in Glen Powell. He capitalized on the actor’s embryonic star power — his beach-body good looks and ace comic timing — way back in 2016 with the shaggy campus hangout movie Everybody Wants Some!! So it makes sense that the cocksure Texas heartthrob from Anyone but You and Top Gun: Maverick would reunite with the director to engineer his ideal star vehicle, a showcase for the downright Cruisian charisma that Hollywood took nearly a decade to fully embrace. That’s the sly meta dimension of this idiosyncratic comedy: What we’re watching, in more ways than one, is a self-actualization story — a portrait of a man taking life by the horns and becoming who he really wants to be.

At first, you have to wonder if Hit Man has been designed to simply spotlight the actor’s range. Powell, who co-wrote the screenplay, has essentially cast himself as a chameleon. He plays Gary Johnson — not the former Libertarian governor of New Mexico, but an equally real Southwesterner, a philosophy teacher who began moonlighting as a part-time officer of the Houston Police Department in the 1990s. Though initially hired only for his tech expertise, Johnson eventually took on what you could call a starring role in a very unusual, ongoing sting operation: He would disguise himself as a hit man for hire, and collect audio evidence of anyone looking to solicit his murderous services.

A man looks at a woman in a car in Hit Man.

Hit Man, which transports this “somewhat true story” from Texas to New Orleans, gets some amusingly broad costume chest humor out of Johnson’s habit of fitting his alter egos to the expectations of his marks. For Powell, this is a chance to do his best Eddie Murphy or Mike Myers and show off his repertoire of SNL caricatures. With the aid of wigs and fake teeth, Gary becomes all manner of decoy lunatic and degenerate: a hulking Russian thug, an oily American psycho, a fey British killer with Tilda Swinton vibes. In truth, the “real” Gary — a soft-spoken intellectual with two cats and no swag — comes across a bit like a costume, too. There’s something rather She’s All That about expecting a textbook hunk like Glen Powell to disappear under glasses and a bad haircut.

Powell is much more convincing as “Ron,” the smooth lady-killer persona Gary invents to ensnare Madison (Adria Arjona), a flight attendant convinced that murder might be the only way to get out from under her abusive, possessive husband. The pair’s rendezvous at a local diner has the flirtatious charge of a meet cute; the two have such instant chemistry that they forget, for a moment, the grave purpose of their encounter. Gary will nudge her away from murder-for-hire, then fall into a steamy relationship with his mark — a torrid romance built on his geek-to-chic subterfuge. Powell and Arjona generate a supernova of heat between them, his fabricated swagger sparking with her sexy playfulness. Their scenes are like a transmission from a hotter era of crowd-pleasers — a bygone age when Hollywood movies still sought to turn the audience on.

Three people look over in Hit Man.

There’s a refreshing unpredictability to Hit Man. Like its main character, the movie keeps twisting itself into surprising new forms. Gary, a not-so-nutty professor getting in touch with his inner Buddy Love, ends up tangled in a web of compounding complications involving Madison’s bad hubby and a colleague/fellow undercover agent played by Powell’s Everybody Wants Some!! co-star Austin Amelio. (The character actor, who also had a significant recurring role on The Walking Dead, makes a magnificent meal out of this stock dirtbag cop character.) The inherent pleasure of any double-life movie is watching the con artist try to maintain their con, and Hit Man certainly delivers on that promise as Gary and Ron’s worlds come precariously close to colliding.

As with Linklater’s earlier Bernie, starring Jack Black as the sweetest murderer you could ever meet, the inspiration here is a Texas Monthly article by Skip Hollandsworth. Hit Man arguably makes an even stronger case for truth being stranger than fiction. It’s also, in some ways, an even darker comedy. Beneath the movie’s sunny, slightly flat sitcom aesthetic (this is far from Linklater’s most vibrantly shot picture) lies a portrait of an America all too willing to entertain daydreams of violent retribution. That extends to Arjona’s Madison, who’s undeniably aroused by the thought of sleeping with a killer. And to Gary himself: He may not really be a hit man, but there’s something faintly sociopathic about the ease in which this keen observer of human psychology steps into each new identity. The wish-fulfillment fantasy of an egghead undergoing a not-to-hot makeover has a deliberately sour aftertaste. What we’re seeing is the triumphant story of someone transforming their life by embracing their dark side.

A man and a woman look at each other in Hit Man.

There’s one truly great scene in the movie: an undercover operation that becomes a glorious dual performance, as Gary finally gains a willing scene partner and an act of deception becomes a form of foreplay. It’s at once tense and joyously playful — a kinky dance with the highest of stakes. Here, and maybe only here, does Linklater achieve the full promise of his premise. Screwball noir is sometimes an imperfect fit for an artist of such laid-back sensibilities. Starting the film with a lecture on Nietzsche — one of a few classroom scenes that provide this story with a running academic commentary — betrays the real concerns of a bohemian cinematic philosopher more high on ideas than drama. 

Hit Man | Official Teaser | Netflix

There are times when Hit Man feels a bit divided against itself, where it seems caught between the buzz of a spinning top mainstream caper and something knottier and more thoughtful. Then again, maybe that’s just in keeping with the nature of its main character, a shape-shifter who discovers that the “real” him is mutable, adjustable, not set in stone. One thing’s for sure: This is the leading-man platform that has eluded Powell for too long — an opportunity to show off the smoldering, good-humored cowboy magnetism that should have made him a movie star years ago. With Hit Man, he’s finally taken the matter into his own hands. And like Gary, he’s put his best Ron forward.

Hit Man is now streaming on Netflix. For more of A.A. Dowd’s writing, please visit his Authory page.

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A.A. Dowd
A.A. Dowd, or Alex to his friends, is a writer and editor based in Chicago. He has held staff positions at The A.V. Club and…
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