THE STORY – An undercover Houston police officer poses as a reliable hitman to arrest those trying to hire him until he tries to save a woman in need.
THE CAST – Glen Powell & Adria Arjona
THE TEAM – Richard Linklater (Director/Writer) & Glen Powell (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 113 Minutes
One never knows quite what to expect regarding a new Richard Linklater project. His versatility is often something that doesn’t seem to be discussed as much as it should. You can find scrappy indie projects, goofy comedies, experimental explorations, and serious character dramas within his filmography. The topics that interest him are wide-ranging, which is why a project like “Hit Man” is so fascinating. On the surface, there are several different directions such a premise could be taken, and Linklater is just the right person to mine effective comedy and an engaging plot, all centered around a magnetic leading performance.
Based loosely on a true story, the film centers its attention on Gary Johnson (Glen Powell). Johnson is a psychology professor at the University of New Orleans. He also moonlights for the local police department to help out with technological issues during busts. However, one fateful day, he is called to perform the bust himself, pretending to be a hitman who’s been contacted and collecting incriminating evidence. To Gary’s surprise, he finds great skill in inhabiting this role, morphing his identity to fit each new interaction. In one instance, he is contacted by Madison (Adria Arjona), who wants to hire him to kill her abusive husband. Gary leads her away from the deal so she won’t go to jail and soon sparks up a hidden romance while still pretending to be the contracted hitman “Ron.” As their relationship deepens, so too does a web of intrigue that Gary finds himself combating against to survive.
Admittedly, this film is not on the surest of footing when it first starts. The setup for this affable protagonist is competent but also feels forced at many points. Gary’s very first outing is an extended sequence of him feeling the part, and while watching the performance is amusing, it grows tedious very quickly. The scene is followed by many instances where the humor just doesn’t really connect, and one begins to worry this will be the mood for the duration. Thankfully, things improve dramatically once Madison enters the picture. The relationship between these two is what really gives the film a more captivating aura. The connection they share grows in an authentic manner, and it’s easy to become invested in their journey together. As the narrative divulges twists and turns, it keeps the energy engrossing all the way until the very end, making for a very entertaining story.
That ease at which the storytelling can so easily be molded into an enthralling piece is generally one of Linklater’s strengths as a director. He may not always have a flashy, distinct style like other auteurs claim, but what he is very attuned to is the story of his character. As the film progresses, so does one’s attachment to this engagement. Linklater knows how to step back and let those emotions play. Some may say it leaves a more anonymous mark in terms of filmmaking, and that is true here. At the same time, that is absolutely made up for in the method he draws all members of this ensemble to interplay nicely with each other and create endearing characters. Even when the visual aesthetics might only be mundane, as they are here, his efforts at crafting an inviting plot is what makes the difference.
It must also be said that Powell delivers a truly remarkable performance. The role obviously allows him the chance to play around with as many personalities as possible. He dons different disguises to create new personas of the hitmen he’s playing, and those parts are a delightful bit of comedy. When he has to assume a single identity to continue his courtship with Madison, there is still a layer of nuance happening that keeps him compelling. Powell has never had a role that showed his talents quite like this before, and perhaps being the co-writer with Linklater is what allowed for that to occur. No matter the case, it’s a wonderful, complex portrayal that can play to both the humor and sadness in a conflicted mindset. The chemistry between him and Arjona is also alluring, and she also gives a pretty great turn as well. The supporting players are all reliable performers, and they color the background nicely, especially Austin Amelio, the previous undercover agent who grows suspicious of Gary’s activities. He’s a menace in the plot but a fun presence to watch.
There should be a warning that “Hit Man” will take some time to ease into the film before it really becomes successful. The beginning is not the best showcase for itself, indulging in stale and awkward humorous bits that land with no impact. It’s a pretty laborious start that, thankfully, improves dramatically. The narrative constantly evolves as any good mystery does but accomplishes this task without feeling like a perfunctory application. With Powell’s absorbing performance at the helm, this becomes yet another Linklater film that may not be a perfect endeavor, but it is most certainly a highly enjoyable ride.