Hit Man (2024)

Adria Arjona as Madison and Glen Powell as Gary Johnson in Richard Linklater’s “Hit Man.”

Glen Powell is killer in romantic ‘Hit Man’

Normally, morality and existentialism have no place in a sexy rom-com. But Richard Linklater’s “Hit Man” is no ordinary movie. It’s actually a rather clever treatise on identity and a person’s ability to reinvent themselves at a moment’s notice. And knowing it’s loosely based on fact only heightens the intrigue inherent in a tale about a college professor moonlighting as a fake hitman for the New Orleans Police Department.

His name was Gary Johnson, but many of his marks knew him by any of the numerous aliases he used to entrap them in murder-for-hire plots. Not content just playing it straight, Gary saw the gig as an opportunity to create characters and costumes much like an actor. Essentially, he adopts those personas as a temporary escape from the ordinariness of his everyday life as a nerdy, Honda Civic-driving philosophy professor who bores even himself.

Kismet that Johnson, who died in 2022, is about to achieve ultimate fame in a Hollywood movie in which he’s portrayed by none other than the ubiquitous “Top Gun: Maverick” hunk Glen Powell. You get the sense he would have been tickled. Even more so to discover his namesake is about to be seduced by the gorgeous Adria Arjona (TV’s “Andor”), who smolders as this comedic neo-noir’s femme fatale.

True to the genre, her Madison epitomizes the helpless female seeking a gullible man to do her bidding. In this case, that would be “Ron,” aka Gary, whose services she requires to eliminate her abusive husband, Ray (Evan Holtzman). They meet in a diner to finalize the deal, but during the encounter, Gary becomes smitten with her, so much so that he betrays his civic duty, convincing her to abandon the plan instead of slapping on the cuffs.

Clumsily lying to his fellow cops, Claudette (comedian Retta) and Phil (Sanjay Rao), after the rendezvous is merely the beginning of a growing deception that raises all sorts of ethical and moral issues, not the least of which is betraying the woman he’s fallen deeply in love with. The question is how long can he keep the Ron ruse up, and what happens to their relationship when Madison learns that Gary is the antithesis of the cold-blooded killer he pretends to be?

There’s nothing novel about the setup; it’s as old as “Sullivan’s Travels,” a woman falling for a guy who is not who he purports to be. It’s a terrible way to begin a relationship, but it makes for pretty good cinema, as the duplicitous male is forced to jump through countless hoops to mask his true identity. And what exactly is that identity? Even Gary doesn’t know.

Linklater, who wrote the script with Powell based on a two-decades-old article in the Texas Monthly, subtly poses some interesting questions. And the one I found most thought-provoking is that of Gary in the guise of a fake hitman. Is it better that he lures potentially desperate citizens into committing a crime? Or is it more righteous to attempt to dissuade them, as he does with Madison?

Linklater doesn’t stop there, digging deeper into why men and women can’t be honest with each other, especially early on in a relationship when both are intent on impressing the other. And how long can they maintain the pretense before they’re found out and the promising union destroyed?

The beauty of “Hit Man” is that it works as a fascinating study of the desire to often be something we’re not, while also connecting as a darkly tinged rom-com built on the familiar concept of two impossibly attractive people falling in love amid mounting obstacles.

Where Linklater and Powell falter is in getting too cute and too convoluted by introducing a cockamamie vengeance campaign waged by Gary’s unscrupulous co-worker, Jasper (Austin Arjona), whose role as the operation’s decoy is usurped. It’s a plot device that seems tacked on and proves disruptive to the flow, as if the writers didn’t have enough faith in the film’s numerous other assets.

The film is also about 20 minutes too long due to the Jasper business and a protracted and repetitive opening in which we watch Gary ensnare a half-dozen clueless rubes in his sting operation. Two instances would have been enough, but Powell seemingly couldn’t resist showcasing his capacity to play multiple roles. OK, we’re impressed, but it detracts from what is otherwise a solid movie rivaling Linklater’s classic “Before Midnight” trilogy in its blend of swooning romanticism and dazzling locations.

New Orleans never looked more enchanting – or ominous – thanks to cinematographer Shane F. Kelly, who previously collaborated with Linklater on the Oscar-winning “Boyhood.” His camera just loves the perfectly sculpted faces of Powell and Arjona, following them in and out of bed as they steam up the screen. Their chemistry is electric, sizzling like movie stars of old in lending this shaggy-dog comedy the oomph to render it a surefire hit, man.

Movie review

Hit Man

Rated: R for some violence, sexual content, language throughout

Cast: Glen Powell, Adria Arjona, Austin Amelio, Sanjay Rao and Retta

Director: Richard Linklater

Writer: Richard Linklater and Glen Powell

Runtime: 115 minutes

Where: In theaters May 24 and streaming on Netflix June 7

Grade: B

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