06/13/2024

Some Crim

Track the Untold Stories

Hit Man is a Surefire Delight

Hit Man is a Surefire Delight

Hit Man, the new film from director Richard Linklater, isn’t really about a hit man. It’s about the myth of the hit man, or at least “the hitman-for-hire.” Yes, occasionally, mafias and shady corporations and dictatorships do seem to have assassins to sic on their enemies. But the idea that any random person can track down and hire a local hit man to do their dirty work? Fiction.

Hit Man is about that fiction, that myth, that understanding. Glen Powell plays Gary Johnson, an uncool philosophy professor at a New Orleans university who moonlights, for extra cash, helping the local police department with tech for their sting operations. If it weren’t for this side gig, he’d be back home petting his cats, grading papers, and bird-watching. (He doesn’t really have a lot going on.) But one day, Gary finds himself out of the surveillance van and inside a sting; he’s a plant, pretending to be a hit man for a man who has tried to hire one. His job is simply to seem legit enough that the suspect ends up incriminating himself. But, it turns out, he’s really, really good at pretending to be a killer.

“Pretending” is the operative word here. It’s not the “killer” part that Gary latches onto, it’s the performative aspect. Soon, he develops different hitmen characters, each tailored to the specific personalities of the suspects looking for a killer. “Who’s your hitman?” he asks himself, of suspects he researches in advance. He busts out costumes, wigs, makeup, and all manner of accessories, and experiments with accents and attitudes. At its essence, Hit Man is about a man who is given a stage and an audience and falls in love with the act of performance.

Not that anyone should care, but I wrote a doctoral dissertation on the theatricality and performativity of “detection and surveillance” (in 19th century literature entertainment, but still), so I was personally delighted by the questions and ideas that Hit Man plays around with. The plot takes off when Gary finds himself both unable to fully commit to his character’s mission but also finds himself wishing to turn into that character for real; playing a sexy, badass, Aviators-and-cowboy-boots-wearing killer named Ron, Gary meets and falls for a young woman named Madison (Adria Arjona), who would like to put a hit out on her abusive husband. As Gary attempts to wrangle what he has created, his character compartmentalization begins to unspool, dangerously blending Gary and Ron’s personalities, asking, ultimately, who our hero really is, inside. The script amusingly braids in Gary’s lectures on Freud and Nietzsche with shots of his transformations.

Co-written by Powell and Linklater, Hit Man is loosely based on a Texas Monthly article by Skip Hollandsworth about the life of real fake hitman Gary Johnson. The film has many merits, with the first one undeniably being its function as a gallery for Powell’s acting talents. Powell has been working steadily in the movies for a decade, and although he’s memorable in all his projects, it’s taken him a long time to attain the leading man status he deserves. In hit Man, he shows off not only his comic chops (with which many of us are long familiar), but also his ability to act as a film’s emotional center. It also allows him to showcase all of the weird little things he can do; there’s a part of the film where Gary shuffles through lots of hit man characters that I called, in my notes, The Glen Powell Show. There aren’t many amazing movies where the conceit is “one actor has to play a lot of different versions of the same vague figure without turning the whole affair goofy”; think Alec Guinness in Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) or even Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove (1964). I think Powell is right up there with his performance(s) as the posse of strange hired guns.

The cast of Hit Man is small, but other major characters include Austin Amelio as a slimy cop who is determined to make trouble for Gary, and Evan Holtzman as Madison’s toxic husband Ray—both played with believable odiousness. The delightful comedienne Retta also has a small role, as Gary’s supervisor at the police station, and she provides Gary’s behavior with some necessary, and hilarious commentary. And Arjona is charming and compelling as the sweet Madison; while her character does reveal emotional nuance, I did find myself wishing that her character had a little more shading. Normally Linklater’s female characters are complex and interesting, but here, we learn little about her besides her fear of her husband and her attraction to “Ron.” We do, I suppose, briefly observe that she has one hobby, but I do wish we got more about that, about anything, especially since the guy opposite her has personality (cough… personalities) to spare.

Still, Hit Man is a successful, endearing, creative comedy with a fun and entertaining premise, bolstered by excellent performances and clever direction. One sequence that is particularly charming, and bears the stamp of Linklater’s own pop-culture-scholarship, is a montage of classic hitman movies that plays while Gary explains that hit men aren’t real.

But Hit Man is real, and I’m very, very glad it is. The film has a very limited theatrical release, and this is an enormous flub on the part of its distributors (if we can even call them that). Bought by Netflix for a $20 million deal after a run in a few film festival last year, Hit Man is only playing in select theaters for about a week before it debuts on Netflix (in the U.S., the U.K. and a few other countries) on June 7th. You should see this movie, but you should see it in theaters if you can. The mid-budget, action-y, rom-com is dying and it’s welcome and delightful entrants like this which are pumping it back to life!

So, you know, go see Hit Man and prevent streaming from killing the movies.