Hit Man is a crowd-pleasing showcase for its star

Hit Man is a crowd-pleasing showcase for its star

Above anything else, Hit Man exists as a showcase for Glen Powell, Hollywood’s latest hunk who despite being a hunk is actually a lot more than just a hunk. Powell himself co-wrote the script alongside director Richard Linklater and it shows. Every single choice made across the runtime of this light and endlessly charming comedy is calibrated to maximize the use of Powell’s skills as both an actor and a star. As a glorified reel it’s an absolute home run, but as a movie unto itself, it’s a mixed bag. A crowd-pleasing mixed bag, to be sure, but one filled with missed opportunities. 

The obvious point of comparison for Hit Man is Bernie, Richard Linklater’s other true-crime-film-based-on-an-article-by-Skip-Hollandsworth. Both movies tell a cheeky true story involving lovable characters engaged in sordid activities. In the case of the much superior Bernie, we witness a somewhat understandable murder committed by a perfectly lovable man. It’s a fine moral line to walk, and it’s the deft way which the film mavigates this territory which gives it its strength. Bernie does not lie in judgment of its characters, but it does seem to understand the darkness in the story, even reveling in it, allowing the overall moral code to be complicated and human. In Hit Man, we have the story of a normal guy who discovers a unique talent, and who discovers himself as a result. There is no darkness to speak of in the true story, so Linklater and Powell have embellished it in a substantial way, adding a level of black comedy and some thriller elements that simply aren’t in the source material. 

This wouldn’t be a problem if the film seemed to recognize this darkness, but instead it chooses to ignore it, forgiving ostensibly “good” characters for doing things that should absolutely land them in jail for the rest of their lives. Granted, a film does not owe us moral clarity — in fact, moral ambiguity is what makes so many similar movies (many by the Coen brothers) really shine. But Hit Man refuses to dance in the murkiness, instead offering a cut-and-dry good vs bad framework that it doesn’t always earn. I would digress, but I don’t want to spoil. 

Even with this misgiving in place, the fact remains that Hit Man is an excessively enjoyable movie, and one that I’m happy to have had the privilege of seeing on the big screen with a crowd. But don’t worry, it’ll still play just fine at its current home on Netflix (maybe invite some friends over). 

The story opens with the claim that what we’re about to see is only true up to a point. While I’m sure that you’ll be able to tell which aspect of what transpires are exaggerated (see: completely made up), I’ll leave it to the film to give you that info. Powell plays Gary Johnson, a divorced philosophy professor who also works a part-time job doing tech work for the New Orleans Police Department. He is tasked with helping out in undercover missions that involve the use of a wire — specifically in cases where the mark is someone seeking a murderer-for-hire. But when the usual hit man stand-in is benched due to use of excessive force, Gary reluctantly steps into his shoes. To everyone’s surprise, he’s really good at playing the part, and really REALLY good at getting the mark to say exactly what needs to be said in order to secure a conviction. 

This naturally bodes well for the PD, but it also lights a fire inside of Gary, whose newfound skill also manifests a newfound confidence. But when Gary lets a potential arrest (that of a young woman seeking relief from her abusive husband) off the hook, and subsequently begins a romance with her while still in character, things get very squirrelly very fast. 

Despite having an overall predictable shape, the plot delivers a handful of genuinely surprising moments, all of which serve to escalate the tale in entertaining ways. Nary an escalation occurs that doesn’t result in a madcap moment and/or a chance for Powell and costar Adria Arjona to shine. The two have a fantastic chemistry, which is more than enough to carry the film through its more eye roll-worthy elements (seriously, how is a “dorky” professor ABSOLUTELY FUCKING SHREDDED?). 

Visually Hit Man is pretty flat, looking less like a film and more like a television show (a distinction that is admittedly fading), which begs the question of whether or not this was intended for streaming in the first place (another distinction that is, quite shamefully, also fading). It’s disappointing given the endless opportunities for the film to have fun with its concept. For example, each time Gary dons a new disguise, he leans into the visual tropes of contract killers that his marks would expect. Each and every one is a reference to genre, so why not go all the way and have the film itself take on a compatible visage? It would only make the gag that much funnier, and it’s not like Linklater is incapable. But as it is, everything is just presented at face value. It all feels like a half measure.

At the end of the day, Hit Man is a purely delightful film, but one which will leave most viewers imagining a better film — one that wouldn’t have taken much additional effort to make. Even so, this is, as previously stated, designed to be a showcase for Powell as a leading man, to which end it is a wild success.  The missed opportunities to explore the cinematic ideas that such a story could hold, and to go darker by leaning into the noir sensibilities that this film acknowledges but works hard to avoid are glaring, but it doesn’t subtract from the simple fact that Hit Man is a whole lot of fun. 

Directed by Richard Linklater

Written by Richard Linklater, Glen Powell, Skip Hollandsworth

Starring Glen Powell, Adria Arjona, Austin Amelio, Retta

Rated R, 115 minutes