Hit Man

When we bemoan the loss of “real” movie stars, what we’re really yearning after are performances like Glen Powell’s in Hit Man. It’s not just that we want to see our favorite big screen crush in a movie – though that is a real (and valid!) reason to go to the movies. It’s that it’s exhilarating to see said performer hold an entire audience in sway with the power of their charisma. This has been the case for as long as movies have been a commercial medium, and as much as contemporary wisdom speaks to the contrary, I still believe it is the case today. We’re just being sold different things these days, constantly pitched on the idea that franchises matter more than the people who act in them. So what do we do with Powell? His performance Hit Man is hilariously funny, unquestionably sexy, and commanding in a way unseen in several decades.

Hit Man garnered raves throughout festival season, with everyone swearing that this had the chance to be the rare indie crossover hit. When the film was purchased by Netflix, that dream got a little bit deflated, and the movie seemed doomed to a fate of being scrolled past by people trying to get to the latest episode of Love Is Blind. The reality is that 2024 was always going to be a hostile environment for the commercial prospects of a movie like this. Directed by the great Richard Linklater (who co-wrote the script with Powell himself), Hit Man lays itself out as a low-stakes, high-concept comedy that blends the tropes of noir and screwball into something fully unique. You wonder if someone lacking the literacy in film history would see it as anything more than a dopey comedy where the main star gets to wear a lot of funny costumes.

But anyone who actually sees Hit Man – especially anyone who sees it with a packed crowd – would be hard pressed to deny the mark this movie leaves on an audience. Its mix of lithe humor with legitimate suspense is executed expertly. The script is based on an actual man named Gary Johnson, an easygoing community college philosophy instructor who moonlights doing work for the New Orleans Police Department. Gary’s specialty is setting up the tech for sting operations, particularly organized arrests for people looking to hire contract killers. “Hit men” are romanticized in the popular culture, but the truth is that most advertising killers are just undercover police officers looking to entrap murderous suspects. When a sudden shake-up on the job forces Gary to step-in as the fake hit man, something amazing happens within the unassuming Gary – he realizes that he’s actually very good at it.

A Jungian scholar, Gary’s fascination with human behavior plays well into his new gig. He researches each new suspect thoroughly, studying their psychology to come up with the perfect character to get them to incriminate themselves. This includes a lot of physical alteration. Want to catch a gun-toting MAGA man? Gary sports an American flag bandana and a neck tattoo while slinging clay pigeons. An angry wife looking for a spousal execution? A goth Russian with jet black hair might be convincing. When he meets with Madison Masters (Adria Arjona), an abused wife looking for a way out, Gary busts out the character of Ron. Ron is a confident hunk with slicked back hair and a tantalizingly unbuttoned shirt – a far cry from Gary, a bespectacled birding enthusiast.

Ron’s relationship with Madison is where the movie really takes off, and begins to mix the neo-noir tropes with romantic comedy aesthetics. Paralyzed by her beauty, Ron/Gary begins to bend the ethical rules of his job, which confuses his fellow officers (Retta, Sanjay Rao), and infuriates Jasper (Austin Amelio), who is the corrupt police officer that Gary was forced to replace. Gary is falling for Madison, but he’s also becoming infatuated with being Ron, and all the perks that that affords him. As their affair unfolds, the complications compound themselves, and Gary is forced to be quick on his feet both in his personal and professional life. The achievement of Hit Man is how well Linklater and Powell convince you that a demure personality like Gary could actually pull this off.

Linklater is a filmmaker who has sustained decades of success because of his acumen and his versatility. Films like Waking Life and the Before trilogy can feel like intellectual exercises, while School of Rock and his Bad News Bears remake can feel like Hollywood enterprises. As varied as his films are, they’re all linked by his lack of pretension and character focus. Perhaps more than any major director of his era, he almost never lets the perfect be the enemy of the good, which can explain a few of his middle-of-the-road flops, but also is the foundation of a director who can make Boyhood and Dazed and Confused, and do both extremely well. Hit Man is the work of an artist of the utmost competence, whose mastery of narrative beats, polished over three decades, allows him to creatively explore aspects of tone and narrative that most films of this ilk do not.

But let’s get back to star and co-writer Powell, whose performance here is somewhere between 80s Tom Hanks and 90s Tom Cruise. In Top Gun: Maverick he got to play a Han Solo-esque role that was vacuous on paper but impressive in execution. In last year’s Anyone But You, he shared chemistry with Sydney Sweeney; a chemistry so dynamic that a rather mediocre movie turned into a sizeable hit. Hit Man is his first true leading performance, carrying the burden of the film’s commercial prospects on his own. It’s an incredible advertisement for his skill and screen presence, headlining a high concept comedy and reproducing romantic chemistry with a much different co-star in Arjona. It’s hard to gauge a Netflix movie, but if this and July’s Twisters doesn’t make this the Summer of Powell, then we all have some self-examination to do.

This is not a perfect film, and it’s one that tries to safeguard itself from criticism from the jump by employing one of my least favorite tropes: the title card that states this is a true story… but not really. In another wink to screwball comedy, the film’s ending defaults to a conclusion that force-feeds audience contentment, as if part of the joke is that something so preposterous could happen. In my own efforts to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good, I’ll say that this entertaining almost to an exhilarating degree, and to watch a young actor like Powell spit in the eye of today’s IP-bias is quite a thing to behold. Having Linklater take the director’s chair to make this a reality is a real treat, as the Austin-based director continues to prove that he’s one of the best, most malleable filmmakers in the US today.


Directed by Richard Linklater