This review is based on a screening at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.
With a tour de force performance by Glen Powell and a sharp script, Hit Man delivers the kind of intense romance sorely lacking in sexless Hollywood movies. It’s a fascinating character study that, though directed by Richard Linklater, gives off the vibes of a chaotic, dark crime comedy from the Coen brothers. Come for Powell’s ascendance to superstardom, stay for one of the funniest and most entertaining movies of the year.
Powell is not playing a superstar, however. Rather, he fully takes advantage of the fact that most of the world – or the major American studios, at least – hasn’t caught up to the fact that Long-fingered Boy from Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over has turned into one of the best actors working today. No, the Top Gun: Maverick breakout plays Gary Johnson, a name so unremarkable it feels fake. He is the most boring man alive, one whose drab hobbies and interests wouldn’t even be fit for the lyrics of Weird Al’s “White & Nerdy.” When he’s not talking to people about birdwatching, Gary is teaching psychology at a university – the guy has two cats named Id and Ego – or moonlighting as a part-time police wiretapper. Naturally, he finds the least sexy role within a sting operation aimed at snuffing out murder-for-hire plots: He’s the technician who makes sure the equipment is working properly.
Things take a turn when the cop who usually poses as the sting’s hit man becomes unavailable – he’s suspended for assaulting some teens – and Gary is asked to fill in. He’s so painfully bland, the movie argues, no one would even notice or remember him. It turns out, Gary is shockingly good at the job, immediately becoming more confident, suave, and assertive. Soon enough, playing a contract killer becomes Gary’s gig, and he starts enjoying the job a little bit too much, creating entirely new and unique personas tailored to each client’s fantasy of a hit man (since, as Gary explains in voiceover narration, hit men aren’t real). We see him as a Patrick Bateman-type in a suit, a street-level hood with a bunch of tattoos and a weird accent, and even a leather-clad, cartoonish vampire hunter – and somehow he pulls each of them off. The makeup and the costumes all look surprisingly good, with Powell injecting each performance-within-his-performance with a gravitas and earnestness that makes them believable even in the most absurd of circumstances. (And before you’re tempted to call BS on the whole scenario: The screenplay for Hit Man was adapted by Linklater and Powell from a 2001 Texas Monthly article by Skip Hollandsworth, Linklater’s collaborator on the similarly stranger-than-fiction Bernie.)
Complications arise when Gary meets Madison (Adria Arjona), a woman looking to bump off her husband. For this job, Gary becomes “Ron,” a suave, sexy, confident killer who his cop colleagues immediately thirst over, given how different he is from Gary. And of course they do, because he’s played by one of the handsomest men alive. Except Powell isn’t necessarily playing Gary as if he’s dumb, or ugly, or even that boring – his performance relies on Gary being completely oblivious to his marquee-idol looks. And if Hollywood hasn’t realized what a star Powell is, then why couldn’t Gary be painfully unaware of his own talent? It’s the kind of role you could imagine Tom Cruise playing in his early days; Gary/Ron has a bit of Cruise’s Collateral character in him, with Powell moving, gesturing, and talking like he’s the biggest deal on the planet.
Hit Man is all about the idea of identity.
Gary’s lectures question whether the self is actually a construct agreed upon by those around you and yourself. If this is true, then it should be easy to just construct a new self as if you’re playing a role, and then reprogram yourself, right?
That’s Gary’s blessing and curse. He is so good at embodying other people his lives start to blend: The idea of Ron becomes too tempting to give up, and the idea of being with Madison once she leaves her husband is hard to resist. Making matters worse, the two exude chemistry, and once they start dating, Hit Man becomes one of the hottest romances in years. The result is a film that feels engineered to disprove every single argument against sex scenes in movies. While Powell is clearly the headliner here, Arjona delivers a fantastic performance that matches his energy. Madison has a few secrets of her own, plus a character arc that is both shocking and shockingly funny.
Hit Man plays to Linklater’s strengths in finding funny everyday people who change due to hilarious circumstances. There’s a whiff of Dewey Finn or Bernie Tiede to Gary, with a healthy dose of screwball comedy giving his predicament the kind of escalating chaos that Joel and Ethan Coen once specialized in. Visually, this is a competently made, but unremarkable film, which is fine – the script and the cast do the heavy lifting.