On paper, a cutesy romcom about an unassuming contract killer doesn’t necessarily sound like a good conceit. Yet, this odd tonal mashup is exactly what Richard Linklater’s Hit Man offers and it’s a surprisingly effective genre cocktail that makes for one of the year’s best films.
Gary Johnstone (Glen Powell) – the kind of name a screenwriter would give a character as mundane as drying paint – is a psychology professor by day and tech surveyor for the police by night. He’s content with his life, single with his two cats Id and Ego, but doesn’t exactly practice the values he teaches: living to the fullest; cultivating a strong sense of self; and encouraging change. That is until he starts moonlighting as a pretend hitman, baiting murder hopefuls into sting operations where cops wait for them to admit their criminal intentions.
For Gary, playing an assortment of characters, and taking on this array of personalities, he sees it as a fieldwork assignment; it scratches his curiosity for the human condition – an opportunity to observe “the other side of humanity”. However, he’s caught off guard when he falls for Madison (Adria Arjona) who he talks out of offing her abusive husband. As the lines begin to blur between Gary and his tough-guy persona Ron, he soon finds himself tangled in a web of deceit and passion as things begin to escalate at work and with his new lover.
What follows is part screwball comedy, lustful romance, and quasi-crime caper and Linklater’s tonal juggling is nothing short of masterful. The plot escalates in the most outrageous ways. A tag at the start of the film informs us this is somewhat based on a true story and you can’t help but wonder how much of what we’re seeing is real and what’s fabricated but it’s grounded by Powell and Arjona’s veritable, fizzling chemistry. The sexual tension is bubbling from their first interaction and no film has captured palpable romance quite this well in some time. Gary’s a man of conviction so considering his relationship with Madison begins to test his morality, it’s important that you believe their passion is so white-hot that it could skew his ideals. And you do.
Powell, himself, turns in impressive work as the mild-mannered Johnstone. He has given his fair share of memorable supporting turns of late (namely as a budding action star in Top Gun: Maverick and Devotion) but Hit Man proves his power as a versatile leading man. Linklater’s script (co-written by Powell too) surfs the gamut of emotions effortlessly, genuinely hilarious in one scene and thrilling in the next, and it gives Powell a lot of opportunity to flex both his dramatic and comedic chops. So much so, in fact, that it’s surprising it has taken this long to see him in what is sure to be a bonafide Hollywood star-making role.
But Hit Man is very much a two-hander between star and filmmaker. While this fits more into Linklater’s crowd-pleasing catalogue like Bernie and School of Rock, his philosophical ruminations are still ever-present throughout. They’re sometimes at odds with the sillier tone but it’s a balance between fun and nuance that most films struggle to get right. There isn’t a more varied and yet consistent storyteller working than Linklater, and if Hit Man isn’t proof of that then I don’t know what is.
Hit Man does not yet have a cinematic release date, but had its UK premiere at 2023’s London Film Festival.