‘Hit Man’ review: Richard Linklater delivers the year’s most killer comedy
10 mins read

‘Hit Man’ review: Richard Linklater delivers the year’s most killer comedy


“Gary Johnson” seems like the kind of unassuming name a screenwriter might make up for someone content in his mundane routine. It’s the perfect name for the character Glen Powell plays in Hit Man, the film he wrote alongside director Richard Linklater, which introduces us to Johnson as a smiling, simple, slightly dorky psychology teacher at a New Orleans high school. Gary lives alone with his two cats named Id and Ego, and on occasion, he assists the local police with tech troubleshooting for their surveillance equipment, which one day leads to him taking on a role that runs completely counter to his personality: an undercover assassin.

But, as with the protagonist in Linklater’s 2011 mortician romance Bernie, Gary is also a real person. Like Bernie Tiede, Gary Johnson was the subject of a Texas Monthly longform feature by Skip Hollandsworth, and Linklater’s note-perfect comedy-thriller is based on his real life — sort of.

What’s the story of Hit Man?

Adria Arjona and Glen Powell in "Hit Man."

Adria Arjona and Glen Powell in “Hit Man.”
Credit: Courtesy of TIFF

Billing itself as a “somewhat true story” in its opening text (and clarifying its embellishments at the end), Hit Man adapts the aforementioned profile piece — a riveting read that calls him “the Laurence Olivier” of his field — but it imagines a more detailed inner life for the elusive faux-contract killer and, more importantly, concocts an absurd series of events on par with the Coen brothers’ Fargo. While it begins with a bog-standard, fish-out-of-water premise, it soon spirals into an enormously funny, multilayered film about romance, passion, identity, and the way love and lust warp people’s perspective, driving them to do crazy things.

At times, it’s a comedic high-wire act, with scenes so simultaneously hilarious and tightly wound that its Venice Film Festival press screening was rife with regular applause breaks. Rightly so: It’s nothing short of a perfect crowd-pleaser, with another star-making turn from Powell, who’s as ridiculous and silly in the movie as he is charming and debonair.

While it initially seems like Powell is over-qualified for the part— Hollywood’s knack for casting model-pretty actors as self-effacing everymen is well-known; it was even a meta-joke in Barbie — it soon becomes clear what kind of comedic and dramatic chops the role requires (not to mention charisma). As the movie’s co-writer, Powell knows the character inside out, so when Gary is introduced to us via voiceover, he knows just how to modulate his voice. It’s slightly overzealous, though not too overbearing; it has a bubbliness to it, but without sounding naïve.

Despite his occasional idiosyncrasies, like his affinity for regaling disinterested coworkers with stories about birdwatching, Gary is the most “regular” regular guy on his covert police squad, led by the grimy, lanky Jasper (Austin Amelio), a dirty cop who’s just been suspended for excessive force. Jasper was also the squad’s undercover hitman, and in his sudden absence, the insecure, jorts-wearing Gary is thrown into the field, forced to trade in his wire-frame glasses for a wire when he sits down with a prospective client looking to bump off an enemy. However, beyond all expectations, he’s a perfect fit, embodying a commanding ruthlessness while guiding his suspects to incriminating statements in increasingly strange and disturbing ways — in character, of course.

It’s a comedic wallop of an inciting incident, thrilling and airtight, and it quickly leads to Gary becoming a rising star at this particular (and peculiar) job. Soon, he begins concocting numerous aliases with their own distinct costumes, nationalities, and backstories, which he tailors to each individual client looking to have their rival or significant other killed, making his preparation akin to something like crafting a dating profile, and turning each meeting into a unique, absurd seduction. However, the metaphor soon collides with itself when Gary is smitten with a troubled client, Madison (Adria Arjona), who seems desperate to get out of a bad situation.

You can see the writing on the wall from miles away, even if you can’t fully decipher it — but on some level, you’re hoping the characters will give in to their most misguided instincts just to see what happens. Gary beginning an affair with a suspect is a bad idea, made all the more complicated by the fact that he continues to conceal his real identity behind the guise of a suave hitman, Ron. This character starts to take on a life of his own, and before long, Gary’s seduction becomes a self-seduction of sorts, as he grows more tempted to fully step into Ron’s shoes and live Ron’s life, leading to a multi-layered labyrinth of splendidly awkward situations and escalating possibilities.

Glen Powell delivers a charming powerhouse performance.

Adria Arjona and Glen Powell in "Hit Man."

Adria Arjona and Glen Powell in “Hit Man.”
Credit: Courtesy of TIFF

What actor wouldn’t write themselves a role where they try on a dozen different wigs and accents? Powell channels everyone from existing pop culture murderers to Tilda Swinton in his unhinged roleplaying, and each part is funnier and more committed than the last. However, the movie’s real substance (both comedic and dramatic) lies in the carefully constructed Ron, the only one of Gary’s characters who isn’t a one-and-done.

As a psychology teacher, he’s prone to giving lectures about identity and morality that just so happen to inform what’s going on in the story — a narrative convenience that’s more than forgivable, since Gary’s shifting character is reflected not just by these expository explanations of theme, but also by the manner in which he delivers them. The fact that he’s slowly transforming into Ron is a foregone conclusion; he concocts Ron from a place of inadequacy in the first place, like his own Tyler Durden. Watching Powell chart what ought to be a familiar course is a delight in and of itself.

His chemistry with the doe-eyed Arjona radiates off the screen, in both flirtatious and steamy moments, resulting in a physical and emotional dynamic likely to increase any theater’s temperature at least a few degrees; it’s as sexy as it is fun. This also results in a seduction of the audience. There’s barely a moment, as there usually is with a comedy of errors, where you’re ejected from the characters’ viewpoint, allowing you to sit back and anticipate the other shoe dropping when major missteps are made (the farce equivalent of yelling at horny horror movie teens not to enter a dark cabin). Because of the way Hit Man is structured, each comedic payoff of Gary meeting a new client is, in its own way, a set-up for increasing oddities down the line. It takes longer for him to actually meet Madison than you’d expect from what is essentially a twisted rom-com; by then, all you want is for Powell to dive headfirst into this fantasy, because it allows him to personify a combination of hot and effortlessly funny.

Each time he does, the film rides a fine line between sincerity and irony, seldom growing detached from Gary and Madison, but always providing hints and reminders of how flimsy this house of cards really is.

Hit Man is as intense as it is funny.

Adria Arjona and Glen Powell in "Hit Man."

Adria Arjona and Glen Powell in “Hit Man.”
Credit: Courtesy of TIFF

On several occasions, Gary (as himself) is called upon as a witness to the cases in which he may have entrapped his subjects, throwing into doubt the ethics of what he does. After all, as he reminds us numerous times, hitmen-for-hire are largely an invention of pop culture, and passions and frustrations can lead even regular people down temporarily dark paths.

This conversation, like most others in the film, applies equally to Gary and Madison’s dynamic, which inadvertently becomes a form of romantic entrapment whose parameters Gary struggles to reset every once in a while. Both characters conceal parts of themselves from each other, sometimes by necessity. But when their respective ruses become too complicated to keep track of, they begin to unravel in delightfully unexpected ways.

The closer Gary comes to being found out, both by Madison and by his own department, the more stories he must concoct to keep his secret safe and his fantasy life intact. Eventually, the lies and identities pile up atop each other in uproarious ways, giving way to scenes where pulling off personal deceptions becomes an intriguing watch on multiple fronts. There’s the story tension of whether Gary will get out of his next predicament, but there’s just as much tension surrounding how the hell Powell and Arjona will pull off the balancing act the script demands of them. It’s the comedic equivalent of Tom Cruise’s death-defying Mission: Impossible stunts.

Linklater, though he keeps his style muted and simple here, turns in another comedy as bleakly and audaciously funny as Bernie (which was co-written by Hollandsworth). However, Hit Man could very well be his best work outside of the Before trilogy, with the potential to become as instantly iconic as School of Rock. He maintains an unwavering focus on performance above all else, substituting even quips and metatextual observations for silent reaction shots that sell the story’s surreality tenfold. By the time the credits roll, there’s a halfway decent chance you’ll be left wishing it was ten times as long.  

Hit Man will premiere on Netflix at a future date TBD.

UPDATE: Jan. 18, 2024, 1:11 p.m. EST Hit Man was reviewed out of its world premiere at the Venice International Film Festival. This review is being republished as part of Mashable’s 2024 Sundance coverage.





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