Hit Man review – Richard Linklater’s thoroughly entertaining fake-killer caper

<span>Adria Arjona as Madison Masters and Glen Powell as Gary Johnson in Hit Man, directed by Richard Linklater.</span><span>Photograph: Courtesy of Netflix</span>
Adria Arjona as Madison Masters and Glen Powell as Gary Johnson in Hit Man, directed by Richard Linklater.Photograph: Courtesy of Netflix

For this thoroughly entertaining comedy thriller, Richard Linklater finds the distinctive and weirdly uncomplicated register of sunny geniality that he so often gives us – when he’s not working on more demanding movies like Boyhood or the Before series. And yet the question of criminal violence presented in terms of goofy unreality gives this film the flavour of something by the Coen brothers.

It is loosely based on the true story of Gary Johnson, an undercover law enforcement officer in Houston, Texas. Johnson specialised in posing as a “hitman” in exotic disguises, setting up meets with people who wanted other people offed, secretly taping them while they said so explicitly leading to them being charged with conspiracy to murder, while always at risk of having the charge overturned due to entrapment.

Linklater and co-writer and star Glen Powell transpose the action to New Orleans, and make their bogus assassin an earnest liberal arts professor called Gary, a nerdy birdwatcher who lectures on philosophical concepts of the self, and also happens to be a tech whiz who volunteers for the police, helping with their audio surveillance equipment. When the cops’ regular undercover “hitman” Jasper (Austin Amelio) is suspended for beating up innocent teen suspects, the police need someone else and Gary is asked if he wouldn’t mind stepping in on short notice to help out.

Powell’s cheerfully likable performance gets us past the absurdity of this beyond-implausible premise. Out of nowhere, Gary turns out to be a natural at faking a tough-guy hitman routine: one awestruck cop – played by Retta (Donna from the classic NBC sitcom Parks and Recreation) – calls him “Daniel Day”, and another says he’s the “Caucasian Idris”. But when Gary meets beautiful, terrified Madison (Adria Arjona) who wants her abusive husband killed, he falls in love with her and his excitingly phoney existence spirals out of control.

Amusingly, Gary’s existential imposture allows him and us to reflect on his lectures about the question of whether there is in fact a true “self”, an irreducible core of authentic identity that remains behind when all imitations or influences are removed. And it also allows him to reflect on the fact that the “hitman”, like the “self”, does not exist – or at any rate not outside the movies’ fantasy world of the lone, freelance, ultra-professional available on a retail basis to anyone with the cash. There are contract killers within criminal organisations, but they are much closer to snipers in the military, and do not work for civilians.

While watching this film, you can spend quite a lot of time waiting for the super-ironic twist. But noir cynicism isn’t the point – and the film’s flaw is that it can’t quite absorb the off-camera acts of violence into its fabric of good-humoured comedy. But it is a very diverting adventure in role-play. I was reminded of David Wellington’s cult 1993 film I Love a Man in Uniform about a soap actor playing a cop who takes the uniform home with him, struts around the streets (illegally) dressed in it, enjoying the respect and attention, and gets dragged into a dangerous situation. Hit Man comes close to fantasy and approaches screwball but keeps the realism. A hit is what it deserves to be.

• Hit Man is in US and UK cinemas from 24 May, and on Netflix from 7 June.