Gary Johnson has a particular set of skills. He talks to strangers about offing loved ones: family members, business partners, or anybody close to them that they want dead. In imaginative detail, he tells them how he’ll murder them. There’s a contract, money is exchanged, an agreement is made. But the thing about Gary is that he isn’t actually a killer; he’s working with the cops.
In director Richard Linklater’s Hit Man, that’s how the sting works. Someone admits they want a person killed and passes Gary the cash. That’s enough evidence for the police to make an arrest. And Gary (Glen Powell), the guy posing as the hard-boiled killer who’s going to fulfill those contracts? When he’s not acting, he’s as normcore as they come, a philosophy teacher at the local college, and a personality that people would probably call “swell.” Gotta say: Glen Powell can really do swell!
According to Hit Man, there is no such thing as a hit man. But what’s very real is the noxious fantasy that you can pay someone to kill another person for you. In this very loose adaptation of a 2001 Texas Monthly feature (“based on a somewhat true story,” the opening reads), no one is exempt from fantasizing about permanently removing a person from their life. The job grants Gary a glimpse into a fascinating cross section of people — and he enjoys it. He’s sympathetic to “seeing how love is curdled into hate,” he explains, “and murder is the only way out.”
Their first encounter is the stuff of great romcom meet-cutes — flirty banter, a lot of doting glances, an instant and convincing connection
In an early scene, we see Gary thoughtfully mixing various kinds of birdseed, catering to each winged friend that might show up at his feeders. He applies that same dedication to his targets, researching their social media and trying to understand what stereotype of an assassin might appeal most to them. A number of early stings see Gary cosplaying as various stereotypes of what you might imagine a hit man to be: shaggy-haired dirtbag; leather-clad Russian thug; Patrick Bateman; and in one of the more amusing examples, an eccentric sociopath with an auburn bob and a vague accent — giving Andy Warhol more than executioner.
Powell, who also co-wrote the film with Linklater, is a surprising casting choice, partly because we’re supposed to believe that he’s a bit of a dork and ignore that he is extraordinarily conventionally attractive. Powell sells it well — as best he can, even though when he’s dressed in his teacher’s uniform of gingham and slacks, we can see his shoulders ready to burst out of his button-up.
Moonlighting for the police is going well. But Gary hasn’t met anyone hot yet — until he runs into Madison Masters (Adria Arjona, who you might recognize recently from Andor). Their first encounter is the stuff of great romcom meet-cutes — flirty banter, a lot of doting glances, an instant and convincing connection. Powell and Arjona totally sell it from the jump and carry it throughout the movie. That they have such good chemistry is a relief because the movie is so light on any other characters that there would be no one else to hide behind.
Gary, in a moment of weakness / horniness, urges Madison to rethink her decision. Why spend the money killing someone? Why not take that cash and start a new life? And instead of agreeing to the contract, Madison walks away. No harm, no foul, Gary thinks. Some time later, she texts him — still thinking he is a hit man, “Ron” — and they look at some dog rescues together. It is unmistakably a date. (If you’re easily aggravated by stories that could be solved early on by a little honesty, this one might drive you up a wall.)
It’s not hard to imagine a sleazier, more darkly funny psychosexual version of Hit Man
Hit Man is a familiar movie that just succeeds at every beat, with a touch of charm and a hint of inventiveness. The conflict ratchets up a bit as a rival officer (Austin Amelio) discovers Gary and Madison’s illicit relationship. But it’ll never stress you out. This is low-stakes, feel-good Linklater — less the guy that made the Before trilogy and more the guy that made School of Rock. In particular, one scene involving the Notes app walked the careful tightrope between tense and hilarious. Sharply written, perfectly acted. It was hard to hear some of the dialogue over the audience’s howling. After that scene ended, my theater started clapping — I was among them.
That said, Hit Man never exactly reaches for anything, even when the opportunities for more are obvious. Early in the film, the morality of Gary’s stings is called into question. What he’s doing is arguably entrapment. And a better man might offer that speech about starting a new life to people who aren’t beautiful. Instead, the closest thing we get to an actual criticism of policing is that the story’s only villain is conveniently explained away as being “a dirty cop,” strangely absolving the leads of any wrongdoing.
It’s not hard to imagine a sleazier, more darkly funny psychosexual version of Hit Man, where Gary and Madison’s relationship is less wholesome and several degrees more twisted. It might make the film a bit more memorable. Also, there’s a trite (though mostly forgivable) thread about self-actualization that runs through the film, weirdly the only part of Hit Man that takes itself too seriously. It’s the kind of earnest thing that sticks out because this movie is less like HBO’s violent dramedy Barry and more reminiscent of something like Apple TV’s chaste sitcom Ted Lasso. Maybe it’s why Netflix decided to pick this movie up for a whopping $20 million, despite the film’s small scale and lack of star power.
Then again, maybe it’s best to not overthink things. (Ted Lasso wouldn’t!) There’s nothing wrong with doing something familiar and easy — and doing it exceptionally well. Hit Man is wholesome. It’s clever. It’s not unlike the con Gary Johnson pulls on his marks: figure out what they want, and just give it to them.