Following David Fincher’s The Killer, Hit Man is the second movie at the Venice Film Festival to feature an introspective assassin narrating his work ethic. Funny, sexy, and smart, Richard Linklater’s rom-com-with-guns plays like an update of Mr. & Mrs. Smith and confirms the star wattage of always-the-bridesmaid Glen Powell, who also co-wrote.
Powell plays Gary Johnson, a nebbish New Orleans psychology lecturer who tops up his income with undercover tech work for the NOPD. Divorced Gary, with his “perfectly forgettable face”, unremarkable clothes, and car so ordinary his students make fun of it, creates the wire taps for undercover stings, trapping those looking to hire a hitman.
With his bird-watching hobby, cats, and comfort shoes, Gary tutors his class in the concept of self – a neat throughline that plays out alongside his metamorphosis from sap to stud via some deft role play. During one sting, the cop who usually plays the fake hit man (their existence is “myth”, our narrator tells us) is benched, leaving the tech guy as the only option to head in with a wire. Forced to step into a persona, Gary mines a dormant baller side of himself – the troubadour, the badass – and he’s soon acing the hitman routine in a series of ridiculous guises.
Tailoring his performance to each client via social media snooping, he’s channelling the most charming of his creations, Ron, when he meets Madison (Adria Arjona), a young woman trapped in an abusive marriage. There’s an instant connection (one that recalls the heat of Lopez and Clooney in Out of Sight). “What if your self is a construct?” he asks the audience. And what happens when Gary wants to remain as Ron?
Based on a feature in Texas Monthly about a real-life Houston police officer who made a career as the state’s most prolific faux contract killer, Linklater’s breezy film is unapologetically commercial and fun. It taps into the concepts of identity and psychological self-styling so prevalent in our social media existence. It also offers a dose of wish fulfilment via a delightful screwball tone that harks back to the late ’90s. The idea of being trapped in a falsehood isn’t new, but Linklater plays fresh riffs on notions of id, ego, and superego and how we, and society, dictate which is more prevalent.
Loaded with noirish zingers (“chivalry may be dead, but I didn’t kill it”) and delicious performances, Hit Man also sees Linklater operating outside of his usual Texan stomping ground. Unfamiliar territory then, although the electric chemistry between Powell/Arjona recalls Hawke/Delpy’s sizzle in the Before Trilogy (though we actually get the filmmaker’s first sex scene here – it’s scorching).
Of course, it patently takes a little more than a changing your hair parting, unbuttoning your shirt low, and wearing a really great jacket to become a heartthrob. But nice-guy Gary’s transformation is as crowd-pleasing as any Cinderella moment. “When did our teacher get hot?” marvels one student.
Meanwhile, Powell’s flirty, sexy, even argumentative scenes with Arjona are truly combustible - like watching Brangelina happen on screen - especially when the charismatic pair agree the terms of their unconventional relationship while cosplaying the mile-high club. They even manage to sell a touching love declaration as a man expires at their feet. Audiences will fall in love with both of them. And Powell’s end-of-semester speech about living your best life might inspire some to push the needle on how fixed their persona really is. You’re going to need a really great jacket for one…
Hit Man's release date is currently TBC.