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Hit Man Review: Richard Linklater's Wild Genre-Bender Takes Perfect Aim

  • Exciting hybrid of genres
  • Glen Powell does multiple levels of great acting
  • Sexy and romantic
  • Craft elements are unexceptional, but still get the job done

Richard Linklater is a director who jumps between a wide range of recurring styles and subjects: nostalgic teen comedies ("Dazed and Confused," "Everybody Wants Some!!"), experimental rotoscope animation ("Waking Life," "A Scanner Darkly"), romantic dramas (the "Before" trilogy), slightly edgy family films ("School of Rock," "Bad News Bears"), and time-based concepts that take forever to complete ("Boyhood," the upcoming "Merrily We Roll Along"). With his latest film "Hit Man," we can now officially declare "adaptations of weird true crime stories written up by Skip Hollandsworth in 'Texas Monthly'" a recurring Linklater subgenre, following in the footsteps of the 2011 Jack Black vehicle "Bernie."

Despite that shared oddly specific starting point and darkly comedic sensibility, "Hit Man" turns out to be a very different film than "Bernie." "Bernie" was presented in semi-documentary mode, with talking-head interviews and real people mixing with the actors. "Hit Man," in contrast, isn't aiming for documentary authenticity, and past a certain point it completely abandons any pretense of realism to become the most entertaining possible version of itself. This is a movie that traverses genres as it progresses, from comedy to romance to neo-noir thriller, whatever mood is best suited for telling the story of Gary Johnson (Glen Powell).

That's not the Libertarian politician from New Mexico, to be clear, but a philosophy professor from New Orleans living a double life of living double lives. Getting involved with the local police department initially doing tech work, he finds himself surprisingly adept at undercover work, pretending to be non-existent hitmen — maybe a redundant phrase, as Gary's narration flat-out states that the career of hitman doesn't exist outside of the movies — to entrap would-be clients and bring them under arrest. But what happens when he meets a client he actually wants to help?

Richard Linklater is bringing sexy back

After attracting attention in "Top Gun: Maverick" last year, Glen Powell, who also co-wrote the "Hit Man" screenplay with Richard Linklater, is proving himself a bonafide movie star. He's excellent at playing both Gary and all of the hitman characters Gary plays. Each hitman is specifically designed for each client, so in the course of a montage, Gary can switch between being a gangster, a redneck, and Patrick Bateman from "American Psycho." The most prominent of these hitman personas is "Ron," a suave romantic type whom the ever-philosophical Gary wonders if he can change his personality to become more like in his real life.

It's Ron who rejects a request from Maddy Masters (Adria Arjona) asking him to kill her ex-husband, telling her to use the money she's saved up to pay him to escape and build a new life for herself. Maddy becomes the first target Gary lets get away from the police — and the first to seek out Ron's company outside of a professional context. Gary's attempt to hold a relationship within his double life is a great vehicle for both laughter and suspense, but what's most surprising is just how passionately romantic this story is.

Not a week goes by on social media these days without some sort of discourse about the state of sex scenes in movies (Too many? Not enough? Argue about this yet again!). Those on the side of wanting more great sex scenes in movies will be very happy with "Hit Man." Powell and Arjona are beautiful people with natural chemistry, and their intimate moments are as wonderful to watch as they are vital to the story and character development. It's not perverted or reliant on shock value — it's sexy because it naturally fits telling a mature story about adult relationships.

Both entertaining and intellectual

One of Richard Linklater's greatest skills is the ability to weave discussions of big ideas into entertaining formats. "Hit Man" is up there with "School of Rock" among his most purely entertaining films, but Gary's intellectually inquisitive nature allows this fun film to also grapple with some of life's big questions. How capable are people of change? How much of our personalities are performative? Are morality and the truth fixed or subjective? This is a smart movie as well as a fun one.

When watching movies about characters working for the police, some viewers are understandably wary about encountering "copaganda," but "Hit Man" comes off as pretty progressive in this regard. It acknowledges moral qualms with Gary's whole operation, and calls out the ways police unions shield bad cops from facing consequences for their crimes. At some points, I was a little worried that Jasper, the "bad cop" character played by Austin Amelio, might be treated too much as a sympathetic buffoon a la Sam Rockwell's character in "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" — a reasonable concern considering Linklater's older films framed Alex Jones as essentially wacky but harmless. By the end of the film, I was so happy to be wrong about that.

I basically have nothing bad to say about this movie. It's not the type of film that will win awards for its cinematography or anything like that, but the craft elements are functional enough that the exceptional script and performances really get to sing. "Hit Man" is a well-rounded film that succeeds on multiple levels, and is easily one of the highlights of the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. It's the exact sort of movie you'll want to tell all your friends about and watch it again with them.

"Hit Man" is playing at film festivals this fall. Further release plans have yet to be announced.

This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the film being covered here wouldn't exist.