Hit Man

  • 22 Jun - 28 Jun, 2024
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Reviews

People like to speak about a golden era of movies – the precise dimensions of which often shift based on the generation of the speaker – when Hollywood made products that were sexier, smarter, and just generally better. Richard Linklater’s Hit Man is for them.

Like its protagonist’s ability to basically change identities depending on the situation, it’s a film that knows what its clients need, shifting from comedy to romance to thriller to a philosophical study of the human capacity to change. It’s one of the smartest films in years, a movie that’s reminiscent of everything from classic noir to the smooth delivery of Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight in its willingness to be damn sexy and morally complex at the same time. Don’t miss this one.

Very loosely based on a true story, Hit Man stars Glen Powell (who also co-wrote this stellar script with Linklater) as Gary Johnson, a New Orleans-based professor who has been assisting the police department with menial tasks like planting bugs and connecting wires in the surveillance van. When a slimy undercover agent named Jasper (Austin Amelio) gets suspended for 120 days for some violence involving teenagers – one gets the impression it probably should have been much longer – Gary is forced to step in and improvise on the job. It turns out he’s really good at it, convincing a sleazebag named Craig (Mike Markoff) that he’s a professional killer by detailing his technique when it comes to body disposal. Gary’s colleagues (memorably played by Retta and Sanjay Rao) suggest that the mild-mannered cat lover and bird watcher should be their new undercover hit man.

When Madison (Adria Arjona) tries to hire a hit man, she meets Ron (aka Gary) in a diner called the Please U Café – like so many choices in Powell & Linklater’s blindingly smart script, even that name doesn’t seem accidental. Ron listens to her story about her abusive husband, Ray, and he makes the sudden decision to save Madison from herself. It’s only one of many beats in the back half of Hit Man that’s a bit morally ambiguous. What if Madison just goes and hires someone else, and someone ends up dead? So much of what follows, as Ron/Gary and Madison begin a romantic relationship, will have viewers wondering what they’re supposed to be rooting for to happen next.

That’s part of the unpredictable brilliance of Hit Man. So many movies telegraph their plot twists and underline their moral messages. Hit Man does none of that. If you asked a dozen people to guess where it was going at the halfway mark, or even where they want it to go, you’d get 12 different answers. Linklater & Powell’s script constantly stays one step ahead of the viewers, making us eager to see what happens next and often surprised by what unfolds. I’m not sure it all adds up without loose plot threads, but it’s so wildly entertaining to take this twisting journey that it doesn’t matter.

It’s also sexy as hell. The first scene between Powell and Arjona feels like a bolt of lightning, given how rarely we see actual screen chemistry in modern movies. Hey, look, it’s two people being movie stars. Their instant chemistry becomes the foundation for the back half of the movie as what was kind of a goofy comedy shifts more into thriller and even noir, genres that allow for a bit of moral ambiguity. Without spoiling, Hit Man goes to some pretty daring places narratively where other filmmakers and studios would have headed for more predictable moral waters. Hit Man recalls noirs and thrillers in which we rooted for the leads to get away with relatively heinous acts in the name of entertainment and didn't think about the repercussions.

That last thought might make Hit Man seem like little more than a lark. It’s not. This film will be underrated in its complexity, a study of how easy it is to become what we pretend we are. It’s about how we like to define people by their jobs, or even if they’re a cat or dog person, but one of the great things about humanity is our ability to surprise even ourselves. It’s a deceptively well-made flick that appears to be Linklater in little more than his “let’s have fun” mode. But it can’t keep one of the smartest filmmakers of his generation from elevating everything that this movie is trying to do with remarkable depth.