Hit Man (2023)

Everybody kills some!!

Hit Man is a deliriously fun movie, but one of its flaws is highlighted in the opening scene. We see Gary Johnson (Glen Powell) lead a college philosophy class, and we are led to believe he’s a total dweeb of a professor. But Powell is outrageously handsome and charismatic. He does have a slight air of dorkiness to him, one that apparently only Richard Linklater can cultivate (see: Everybody Wants Some!!, Apollo 10 1/2), but it’s steamrolled with movie star wattage. This ain’t no goober.

Later in the film, Johnson is again leading a college class. Within the narrative, something has changed about Johnson: He is moonlighting as a fake assassin who needs to embrace his inner badass. It has bled into his daytime persona. Two of the female students whisper to each other in amazement: “Excuse me? When did our professor get hot?” And I was scratching my head. He was always hot in a very conventional, self-evident way! (The only person I can imagine pulling off this dichotomy the way it’s written is Sam Rockwell.)

Perhaps some of this is intentional. Hit Man, directed by Linklater and written by Linklater and Powell, spends much of its runtime considering the various ways we act out different versions of ourselves and how, or even if, we can tell which one of those is our “real” identity. And within that thematic framework, it is largely a meditation on acting, a thrilling piece of meta-cinema. Perhaps Linklater and Powell want us viewers to see Powell as a handsome man while his peers blindly view him as a dork, the reality and inner truth of the character obscured and performed on multiple levels. (Or maybe Glen Powell is just a beautiful man.)

I’m getting ahead of myself a little. Because what Hit Man really is, even more than anything pretentious as all that, is a terrifically entertaining mid-budget summer film that also has a brain on it. It’s a throwback: a screwball noir that gradually shifts from comedy to thriller across its duration. It’s a bit unquantifiable: sexy and romantic, but fiercely dark at moments; playful and cheer-worthy until it’s suck-the-air-out-of-the-room bleak (and then halfway back again).

Gary Johnson (Powell) is a college professor who consults on wiretapping technology with the local police force. One day he’s thrown into action as part of an ongoing sting operation: arresting people who try to hire hitmen. Johnson proves to be a natural, using his insights on the philosophy of human nature that he teaches to college kids during his day job to manipulate would-be criminals into trusting the fake killer in front of them. For each target he pursues, he crafts and inhabits the exact person whom that target would hire to inflict fury on their enemies.

This opening bit feels more like a procedural sitcom than an ambitious Linklater joint. It’s mostly an excuse for Powell to use silly voices and wear silly costumes. It could have run on the USA Network as an hourlong dramedy as part of a Friday night block alongside Psych and Monk for six seasons. But, before long, Hit Man picks up and transforms into something more special when Johnson forms an instant bond with one of his sting targets, a spurned and abused wife named Madison (Adria Arjona) who wants to escape her husband. This attraction puts Johnson in a tough spot in the moment: should entrap this woman with whom he feels immediate chemistry, or relent and give her an out?

Madison ends up falling for the hit man she tried to hire, though of course he’s not really a hit man. He’s not even “Ray,” the persona that Gary crafted for Madison. Or is he Ray? The longer he lets the facade play out, the more Gary lets Ray peek through in his day-to-day life. It’s not quite Mulholland Dr. or Persona, but the idea that we have different faces and they can all represent real but conflicting versions of our true self, much the way an actor creates a character who is real in that cinematic universe, provides a compelling thematic through-line.

I really admire Hit Man’s screenplay from a story perspective. It avoids the easy ways out of its various scenarios, always building to some new and more dangerous conflict, always letting the tension bubble a little higher. As Gary/Ray falls deeper into his relationship with Madison, the stakes grow in both his personal and professional life. Like a proper noir, the film is less concerned with defining and upholding heroism than it is letting its protagonists wrestle with shifting truth in a murky, morally gray world.

It all comes together in a scene so good it makes it easy to forgive any of the flaws and quirks leading up to it. The climax is a breathlessly tense two-hander between Powell and Arjona that not only pulls all of the narrative threads together but the thematic ones too: The layers of deception (and, rather explicitly, acting — to the point that there is script-reading) piling up and folding in on itself so that it’s not clear exactly who is saying which parts, what is truthful, and what they really believe. It’s just an immensely clever and satisfying scene, and would make my shortlist for best film scenes of the year.

As a filmmaking specimen, I’m less smitten with Hit Man, though I admit it doesn’t detract too much from the experience. Aside from his rotoscoped films, Linklater does not frequently stylize his visuals in any meaningful way. But they do typically have a compelling, well-staged look and feel to them. Hit Man is not quite streaming-fodder levels of ugly, but it does feel phoned in and haphazard in production for Linklater. I’m imagining a version of Hit Man whose presentation matches a neo-noir much the way the script does: something mahogany and rich and shadowy rather than run-of-the mill.

But the acting really holds up. Powell might not be a super-duper-star yet, but with Hit Man, it feels like he’s on the verge. (If only this could have been a wide theatrical release with a big marketing budget. I really think this could have done numbers.) Notwithstanding the previously mentioned issue of his daunting good lucks undercutting his loser identity, Powell is pretty damn great: funny and charismatic and sparking with everyone else in the cast. You are always deeply invested in his survival and his relationships.

Arjona has a bit less to do, but has a higher degree of difficulty, and she’s terrific. Her chemistry with Powell is outstanding. She’s outrageously sexy and alluring to the point you can believe that Gary would throw it all away for her, but she avoids being a generic femme fatale (the role we’d expect Madison to fill), with a bit more vulnerability and depth and self-contradiction.

It adds up to a fun exercise in blending throwback genres — part screwball romcom, part noir thriller, part Hitchcock double-crosser — while still feeling modern and fresh. It cleverly and expertly morphs in tone across its runtime. Powell and Arjona are great. I wish it had a bit more sparkle and punch, but it’s another triumph for Richard Linklater.

Is It Good?

Very Good (6/8)

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8 replies on “Hit Man (2023)”

This film somehow manages to be one of the most dark cynical films I can remember watching (“You can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time” is exploited throughout the film) and one of the most romantic comedies I’ve seen to date (In the most delightfully-twisted way to boot).

Definitely agree about Mr Powell having the potential to go Big (If he hasn’t got there already: he’s definitely the breakout star of TOP GUN: MAVERICK), if the movies still retain their power to launch a career into the stratosphere despite cinemas suffering so many reverses and streaming offering so much potential to bury the nuggets of pure gold in a pan-full of dross.

Also, if we include a previous generation of leading men in our consideration, I’d bet Mr Harrison Ford could have sold the dichotomy at the heart of the film (Despite being leading-man handsome and charismatic).

Oh, and I’m deeply embarrassed to admit that one failed to recognise Ms. Arjona from GOOD OMENS* (Despite my devotion to the iron rule that a gentleman ought never to forget the name of a beautiful lady, the better to avoid referring to her as a work of art, rather than a person): I suspect that will not be a problem after the impression she made in this film.

*My only defence is that most of her scenes were with Mr Jack Whitehall (An actor for whom I nourish an irrational, yet all-encompassing dislike) so I may have repressed those memories.

It definitely has the dark heart of a noir in its second half. And, yeah, Powell definitely seems like he’s just about there. If Twisters really pops this summer, he could get there. Who would have thought the charismatic weirdo who was my favorite part of Everybody Wants Some!! seven years ago would be approaching A-lister territory.

I wanted this to have a harder edge overall, but there’s no denying it has its fun moments, and Powell’s definitely got something. Like a lot of movies nowadays, it has a lot of clunky, on-the-nose voice-over that dictates what you should be thinking/feeling. E.g., when Gary and Madison first hook up, Powell has a long paragraph of V.O. explaining how he’s usually so cold and analytical in such moments, but as his new persona he’s much more confident and seductive, and also isn’t it interesting that he’s getting involved with someone who wanted to kill her husband… in other words, he spells out everything happening in front of us, everything the movie should be able to show us dramatically, and it takes me out of a pivotal scene. That sort of thing irrationally bothers me, but I might be alone on that.

Then at the end, his V.O. says “I’m the perfect cocktail of Gary and Ron,” and it’s like, yeah man, we know, that was kinda the whole point of the story.

Movies need to dial it back on the voice-over.

“In this comment, Nate expressed reservations on various aspects of Hit Man’s craft, notably its on-the-nose voiceover. We could gather from his tone that he wasn’t quite as wild about the film as Dan was, though he certainly found aspects of the film to like. It’s the perfect cocktail of liking and disliking the film.”

I chuckled.

Gotta see Hit Man, I guess, but I gotta gin up some enthusiasm to do Glen Powell homework with EWS!! and Anyone But You. Which shouldn’t be too hard.

Everybody Wants Some!! is a movie I will always go to bat for. Outstanding ’80s “dudes rock” hangout vibes and rewatchability. But it has its skeptics. If you care about any of that “story” nonsense you might be turned off. And Anyone But You… well I gave it a very soft positive review awhile ago and haven’t thought about it since.

And to bring things full circle to the parent comment, I saw EWS!! with Nate in theaters back in 2016.

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