Based on a 2001 Texas Monthly article by Skip Hollandsworth, Richard Linklater’s breezily amusing “Hit Man” — one of those laugh-light comedies that bills itself as “a somewhat true story” — begins with a premise that requires a greater suspension of disbelief than many people might be able to muster.
Can you believe that a straight-laced New Orleans college professor named Gary Johnson, a sexless birder who lives alone with his cats and drives a Honda Civic, could start moonlighting as a phony hit man for the local police? Sure. Can you believe, as we’re told, that Gary is so good at luring customers into confessing their intended crimes because his face is as forgettable as his name? Maybe, but it would probably be less of a stretch if Gary weren’t played by “Top Gun: Maverick” star Glen Powell, who is plainly one of the most handsome and charismatic human beings on planet Earth (and also a co-writer and producer on this movie). It’d be like casting Ryan Gosling as Keyser Söze. Honestly, there were parts of “Meg 2: The Trench” that were easier to swallow.
But the thing about Gary Johnson is that he doesn’t realize that he’s Glen Powell, which is ultimately easy enough to accept in a world that still hasn’t realized Glen Powell is Glen Powell. Between the glimmer in his eye and the dimples on either side of his face, this dude is such a natural born movie star that Hollywood’s refusal to cash in on him is starting to feel like some kind of elaborate tax scheme, similar to Warner Bros. shelving “Batgirl” or studio execs bragging about all the money they’ve saved during the strike. Linklater has always seen it (he first hired Powell for a small part in “Fast Food Nation” all the way back in 2006), but the rest of the world is another story. Watching “Hit Man,” I couldn’t help but wonder if Powell himself doesn’t recognize his own potential.
It’s a fitting question to ask yourself during a movie so preoccupied with identity and self-perception (despite unfolding with the casual nonchalance of something you might watch on TBS in the middle of a Sunday afternoon, this is still a Richard Linklater joint). “Do you know yourself?” Gary asks his students in the opening scenes. “What if your self is a role you keep playing?” It’s only through the process of playing other roles that Gary inches closer to his true being, if this seemingly empty vessel can even be said to have one.
Gary’s job is effectively to entrap people into paying him to kill their spouse or boss or whoever else it might be (“think hit man thoughts” he repeats to himself as he gets into character), and this being a semi-silly comedy, that usually means wearing a bad wig, pretending to have an indecipherable Cajun accent, and employing other bits of flim-flam along those lines. He meets one client in full Patrick Bateman cosplay, presumably because his research suggests that will match the customer’s idea of an assassin for hire. “Hit Man” insists that low-rent contract killers are an invention of the movies, meaning that Gary’s targets have already fallen for a ruse before they ever got the idea of committing murder by proxy, so he’s really just leaning into the bit.
It’s all fun and games until one of Gary’s customers is super hot. Her name is Madison, she’s played by “Triple Frontier” actress Adria Arjona (who perfectly understands this movie’s grounded but off-kilter energy), and she wants someone to kill her abusive husband. Playful and bubbly despite her sorrows, Madison doesn’t seem like the type who would resort to murder, and Gary — disguised as a smooth man of mystery named Ron, who’s basically a cross between Bill Paxton’s used car salesman from “True Lies” and the real Glen Powell — finds himself trying to stop her from committing the biggest mistake of her life. He succeeds, which is all well and good until he runs into Madison a few weeks later and reflexively slips back into Ron.
So begins a steamy romance that would appear to be based on a lie if not for how at peace with himself Gary is in his persona. Maybe Ron is the real him, and Gary the disguise? “There are no absolutes, either real or epistemological,” someone says, delivering the kind of dialogue that proves typical of a semi-anonymous mid-budget movie that never goes more than a few minutes without reminding you that it was made by the “Before Sunset” guy.
Powell and Arjona have fizzy chemistry with each other, which isn’t much of a shock for two people who could probably get a spark going with a paper bag during a rainstorm, but it’s fun to watch both of their characters throw themselves into their new lives. It’s not particularly funny, however, as Powell and Linklater’s script opts for broad charm over big laughs to an extent that leaves “Hit Man” a bit too milquetoast for a movie whose star is ready to make a bigger impression, but Powell’s ability to power through some dull material on charm alone only reaffirms the credibility of his stardom, and the film’s general lack of ambition keeps things from going awry whenever a joke doesn’t land. Aim small, miss small.
It helps that the plot isn’t as predictable as it first seems; we know that Madison’s ex (Mike Markoff) and Gary’s police rival (a slimy good Austin Amelio) are going to stick their noses in the happy couple’s good time romance, but — a handful of groaningly convenient chance encounters notwithstanding — the story unfolds with an unforced ease, and all of its small twists are smartly calibrated to test the characters’ capacity to change. A few of the more violent turns go so far as to weaponize the “based on a true story” of it all against our expectations, which adds to the Nietzschean enjoyment of a life lived dangerously.
Still a bit too safe for its own good, this lightweight lark doesn’t quite display the full courage of its convictions, but it at least has the chutzpah to flip certain philosophies on their head. “We are what we pretend to be,” Kurt Vonnegut wrote in “Mother Night,” “so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” Careful, “Hit Man” agrees, but not so careful that we don’t let ourselves pretend to be someone else.
“Hit Man” premiered at the 2023 Venice Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.