Hit Man Review | The Feel Good Hit of the Summer

by Andrew Parker

A delightful comedic collaboration between director Richard Linklater and star Glen Powell, Hit Man is laid back, effortless fun. Based somewhat on a true story (and a Texas Monthly article from renowned journalist Skip Hollandsworth), Hit Man has a high concept plot that fits perfectly into Linklater’s love for quirky, small town characters and Powell’s increasingly formidable leading man charms. Together the director and star – who wrote the screenplay together – make Hit Man an unlikely romantic comedy with some thematic and philosophical meat on its bones, putting it a cut above most genre films of this type.

Gary Johnson (Powell) is a milquetoast, divorced college professor teaching psychology and philosophy to a bunch of barely engaged students in a suburb outside New Orleans. Like a lot of underpaid teachers, Gary has a side gig, but his is an interesting one: assisting the local police on the tech side of things during sting operations meant to entrap unsuspecting rubes who are trying to hire a hit man. After the ineffective, burnout officer (Austin Amelio) who normally poses as the fake assassin is suspended from duty, Gary is forced to step into the role because no one knows him as a cop. Turns out, Gary is pretty good at this sort of thing, using his knowledge of psychology and previously untapped ability to be a master of disguise to successful effect. But when Gary is tasked with entrapping Madison (Adria Arjona), a woman who wants to kill her abusive husband (Evan Holtzman), he begins developing feelings for his mark. Gradually, Gary develops a relationship with Madison, but she only knows him by his false persona, leading to major problems for the both of them, professionally and personally.

Linklater has worked with Powell as an actor several times before (Everybody Wants Some!!, Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood, Fast Food Nation), and this material brings out the best in both of them. Linklater is a chameleonic filmmaker, capable of making outside art, austere dramas, and mainstream crowd pleasers appear equally effortless in his hands. Hit Man fits nicely alongside Linklater works like Bernie and SubUrbia, slices of life that feel richly detailed and lived in to make some of their stranger and wackier aspects come across as reasoned and realistic. It’s made with the goal of making the viewer chuckle at the fact that any of this could really happen, pushing the comedy just to the edge of ridiculous without crossing a line into flat out unbelievability. Things probably didn’t go down in real life like Linklater and Powell make them appear, but it’s a testament to their collaboration that the viewer can buy into all of it and go along with the ride. It’s not a flashy film, nor does it need to be.

Sometimes that lack of gloss and Linklater’s desire to take his time with the comedic aspects can be a slight detriment to here, as it dances too close to being too much of a good thing. Some of the gags, especially observing Powell putting on funny disguises and accents (which, to be fair, he’s really good at), border on the repetitive. There’s also a few too many scenes which don’t amount to much more than witty banter between Gary and his police department handlers (the wonderfully cast Retta and Sanjay Rao). These bits add a fair amount of laughs, and everyone is so darn good at what they do that it’s all easily excusable, but these asides cause the pacing of Hit Man to lag more than it probably should. It’s all good stuff, but one can definitely feel the film’s length.

But at other points, Linklater and Powell infuse a fair bit of food for thought that enhances the overall experience. Through the main character’s day job as a professor, Hit Man is able to ask questions beyond the obvious. It’s a bad idea for Gary to be dating someone he has been constantly lying to, but Hit Man also makes the viewer think quite a bit about the nature of entrapment, and whether or not his side gig is ethical at all. Is it right to force someone’s hand into bad decisions during a clear moment of emotional weakness on their part? Would it be more ethical for Gary to try and steer these people away from their violent aims? Would that approach even be successful? What’s to say these people won’t just go ahead and kill someone themselves? Hit Man doesn’t really have any answers to these bigger questions, but at least Linklater and Powell are smart enough to make the viewer pay them close consideration amid all the fun stuff.

As the lead, Powell gets a chance to show off both a sillier side and more nuanced dramatic work than he has in some of his more high profile roles as of late. He’s shown a lot of talent recently, but his performance as Gary proves he has formidable acting chops. There are noticeable layers to his turn as an everyman getting caught up in an elaborate fantasy, and Powell is able to subtly show how Gary knows what he’s doing is wrong, but he keeps doubling down anyway because it makes him feel a sense of importance that his life has lacked to that point. Similarly, it also allows him to be a full blown ham, donning a number of wacky personas that show a different kind of range. Like Linklater behind the camera, Powell shows he too has the ability to be a chameleon, capable of tremendous romantic chemistry alongside the equally whip-smart Arjona and equalling the comedic abilities of all the pros within the film’s orbit with little more than a puzzled glance.

I’m sure there’s someone out there who’ll dismiss a movie called Hit Man for not having a ton of action or black comedic touches, but Linklater and Powell’s level of dramatic restraint is a lot more pleasing and surprising. It’s first class entertainment made by people who respect the audience and value having a substantial good time. Even though it has been making the festival rounds as of late, Hit Man is an ideal summer movie. It has romance, comedy, a splash of action, a unique plot, and just enough substance to hold everything together. Although it’s going straight to Netflix in many parts of America and abroad (following a limited theatrical release in some bigger markets), in Canada Hit Man is a theatrical release, and it’s definitely one of the rare comedies that benefits from the big screen treatment and being viewed with a crowd. If you’re in an area where to can see Hit Man in a theatre, do yourself a favour and catch it there. You’ll be glad you did.

Hit Man opens in Canadian cinemas on Friday, May 24, 2024.

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