The hitman flick is just about the most cliched of modern movie types. This profession regularly factors into action movies, but it’s made its way into plenty of other genres, including the romantic comedy. Concrete examples may not immediately come to mind, but I’m sure you can recall vague details of a dozen forgettable movies where the lead character had to hide his lethal form of employment to fool his actual or potential loved ones. Studios keep making them because they seem to work for people, but we discriminating cinephiles know better, don’t we?


Discriminating cinephiles have also embraced Richard Linklater after some of us might have considered his early efforts just a bit jejune. And so we should trust Linklater that he is not interested in adding just another interchangeable hitman movie to the cinematic landscape. Hit Man is in some ways the antidote to the trend, as it is not actually about a hitman.

It’s about a guy who pretends he’s a hitman in order to help police in their attempts to – well, not precisely entrap, but pretty close to that – people who are hoping to knock somebody off, and need an intermediary to do it. In fact, the title character doesn’t have to keep the fact that he’s a hitman secret from his love interest – he has to keep it a secret that he’s not one. What’s more, Hit Man suggests the profession itself might be no more than a fanciful fabrication of the movies.

Linklater’s new movie is inspired by the life of a man named Gary Johnson, who really did this sort of thing, in turn saving the lives of scores of potential future victims. It isn’t exactly a biopic of Johnson, even though Glen Powell does play a character called Gary Johnson. The fact that it is only loosely based on Johnson’s life gives Linklater license to put Johnson in scenarios of his and Powell’s own invention, since he co-wrote the script with his Everybody Wants Some!! star. And they are some tasty scenarios indeed.

Gary is actually a professor of psychology and philosophy at the University of New Orleans, but he starts moonlighting for the local police department after the guy who used to do this work, Jasper (Austin Amelio), is placed on paid leave for beating up some innocent teenagers. Gary gets connected up with those seeking out his “services” by helpful informants in, say, the exotic dancing community, and he’s meant to extract just enough incriminating evidence on tape to prosecute them. But Gary turns out to be a natural at playing the part, so much so that he starts trying out different outfits and hairstyles and accents, all in the name of creating the customised persona best suited to successfully loosening the lips of each “customer.” Some of this is clearly compensating for the fact that the real Gary is a bit of a nerd, a cat person with greasy hair.


In the guise of Ron, his sexiest persona – just check out that dynamite green jacket – Gary meets Madison (Adria Arjona), the first person who makes him question his methods. Madison isn’t cold-blooded, she’s just a scared woman out of her depth, who is so frightened of continuing to live with her abusive husband, Ray (Evan Holtzman), that she wants to bump him off. Gary’s handlers listening in on the wire, played by Retta and Sanjay Rao, notice the change in tactic, as Gary starts talking Madison out of what she plans to do before she can cop to wanting to do it. With his good record, they write it off as a one-time thing, a chance to rehabilitate the guilty before they have even been found so. But the reinstated and resentful Jasper is also in the room, and he starts to sniff out what may really be going on here – that Gary has fallen for the fetching Madison.

Linklater has long been a wordy writer, the kind who ruminates on life philosophies at the expense of the way people really talk. Here he’s got a perfect mouthpiece for that tendency in Gary, a philosophy professor with a platform to ruminate, who even brings his penchant for examining life’s details into the scenes where the “hitman” is connecting with potential collaborators. Confining his “stoner chat,” as it were, to these comparatively few scenes has allowed the scenes that don’t involve this to live and breathe more naturally. This enables him to really play on the chemistry between Madison and Ron – she doesn’t know he’s Gary, of course – in a series of scenes that are equal parts playful and steamy.


Hit Man is a fairly conventional package from Linklater, a writer-director who has rarely restricted his artistic output to the specific wants and needs of his audience. I mean, it didn’t take 12 years to make or anything like that. This is both a feature and a bug for the movie. Although some of his fans will surely want something shaggier and woollier than Hit Man, it’s the sort of film that might convert new fans. He’s proving here that he can please crowds in a similar way to how Steven Soderbergh pleases crowds when he’s not involved in one of his more idiosyncratic works, and it’s a good fit. That’s also fortuitous because the stars here, Powell and Arjona, are clearly on the way up, with mainstream exposure to their charms working as the best way to keep those charms coming.

None of this is to say that there is not complexity to Linklater’s and Powell’s screenplay, the sort that also recalls the structure of a Soderbergh thriller. (Or the hangout version of a Soderbergh thriller, anyway.) Numerous scenes require characters, and not just Gary, to react in the moment, to retain a keen awareness of which of the people listening on the other end know what information. Watching the characters keep the plates spinning is a pleasure in and of itself, which highlights both the superlative acting of a good cast and the writing that underpins it.


Maybe in the end there’s something a little too facile about the movie for it to pull off everything it’s trying to pull off, particularly in the part that gives lip service to the meaty philosophy underlying the film’s themes. If so, you only notice it in retrospect. In the moment, Hit Man delivers big time on the charms of its stars and the continued relevance of a director going on 35 years in the business, who continues to delight us in surprising ways.


Hit Man is currently streaming on Netflix.

8 / 10