The Many Faces of a Hit Man

They did not break the mold when they made Glen Powell. That’s not to say the actor isn’t talented—after first really noticing him as a strapping baseball hunk in the filmmaker Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!!, I figured Hollywood would take quick notice of his charms. Since then, he’s vaulted to fame in movies such as Set It Up, Top Gun: Maverick, and Anyone but You. But he’s a familiar sort of star, the kind of big-screen hottie with a twinkling smile who can slot right into any old blockbuster. And Linklater uses that dazzling anonymity to perfection in Hit Man, a movie that’s well aware of what a looker Powell is, but equally cognizant of his chameleonic nature.

Based on a Texas Monthly article about a real-life police contractor, Hit Man is an airy comedy (written by Linklater and Powell) that hones and deploys the lead actor’s on-screen image in ways I couldn’t believe. Powell plays Gary Johnson, an unassuming college professor who moonlights with the New Orleans Police Department as a pretend contract killer. He meets with potential clients, then helps the cops capture them as the clients arrange for him to murder someone. The film and article point out that the profession of “hit man” is basically an invented one—this is not a job that anyone can be sure is real. But America’s movie-addled idea of one is all that Gary has to be.

Linklater has worked in every imaginable genre over his long career, but whether he’s making futuristic sci-fi like A Scanner Darkly or a true-crime drama like Bernie, his storytelling always has a sweet sort of shagginess to it. This is true of Hit Man, particularly in its first act: Gary, although friendly and handsome, is a pretty bland guy who stumbles into his part-time police gig almost by happenstance, and then leans into it like he’s taking an intro improv course. He buys clothes, wigs, and fake mustaches and affects funny accents, greeting each potential client as a new criminal stereotype (a biker dude, a Russian mobster, a fussy sociopath).

It’s fun to watch Powell slip into costume after costume, essentially a long-running joke to the audience about his versatility. Although Hollywood has been quick to cast him as the confident romantic lead, Powell reveals Gary to be a person who gets perverse joy out of pretending to be someone else (and doing a good job of it). Linklater, too, is having fun with the image of America’s everyman, creating a comedic noir where a seemingly mild-mannered hero has a shifty streak. The work Gary’s doing is also a little icky: essentially tricking people into confessing their murderous desires on tape, rather than catching them in the act.

Still, the people Gary is ensnaring largely present as criminal lowlifes until he runs into Maddy Masters (Adria Arjona), a woman seeking Gary’s “hit man” to take care of her abusive husband. As in any good noir, Gary immediately falls for this beautiful woman, and that soft spot threatens to be his entire undoing, drawing him into a tangled web of actual criminality too tasty to spoil further. The film’s spiral into romantic drama wouldn’t work without Powell and Arjona’s crackling chemistry. Arjona has pulled her weight in stale supporting roles in a few bad action movies (Morbius, Pacific Rim Uprising), but this is a stunning star turn. She matches Powell’s charm and raises the stakes of what had been a more frivolous crime comedy.

That’s what Linklater can do better than anyone when he’s locked in, though: turn a low-key, humorous indie into something more profound just through his mastery of tone and his trust in his actors. He’s been on an odd run of late, making adult dramas, such as Last Flag Flying and Where’d You Go, Bernadette, that felt leaden in their storytelling. Hit Man is his best movie since Everybody Wants Some!!, a testament to the strength of his partnership with Powell; it’s also just a sexy, fun movie for grown-ups that believes in its story rather than empty spectacle. One of Hit Man’s climactic scenes got awed gasps out of my audience akin to those Powell had earned for his aerial derring-do in Top Gun; this is a rare romantic comedy to see with a roaring crowd.

The Atlantic