Fellow Texans Richard Linklater and Glen Powell have been working together since Powell was a teenager, but their latest collaboration, Hit Man, sees them as more than just director and actor, but as co-writers and co-producers. Jumping off a 2001 Texas Monthly article in which Skip Hollandsworth profiled Gary Johnson, Houston PD’s most prolific undercover agent. In Hollandsworth’s article, Gary Johnson is a milquetoast man with no close friends and a distinctly mild manner, an intellectual with a knack for acting and a good listener who inspires trust in people committed to doing desperate deeds. This is where we find Gary, as played by Powell, at the beginning of the film, but, well…
To say Hit Man takes liberties is like saying the moon is just a rock. Woman of the Hour takes liberties, Hit Man enters an alternate narrative dimension altogether. Hollandsworth’s article and the real Gary Johnson are just a trampoline for Linklater and Powell to bounce off and launch into a film that echoes Out Of Sight for its combination of sexiness, crime, and sheer entertainment. In the film, Gary Johnson is a part-time professor, part-time tech geek for the New Orleans Police Department. He gets sucked into undercover work when a detective, Jasper (Austin Amelio, Powell’s fellow alum from Everybody Wants Some!!), is suspended for beating a couple of teenagers (within view of a camera).
It turns out, the staid and boring Gary has a talent for pretending to be a hit man in order to convict people of murder-for-hire. It’s very hard to hide Glen Powell’s handsomeness, but the first act of Hit Man is a valiant effort on behalf of everyone, with a truly terrible Suburban Dad wardrobe (courtesy Juliana Hoffpauir), greasy hair, bad glasses, and Powell’s ability to change his physicality on a dime. As Gary gets more involved in undercover work, he starts tailoring his hit man persona to the “client”, and you can feel how much fun Powell is having playing all of Gary’s weird little characters.
But when he dons the persona of “Ron”, a slick tough guy, for Madison (Adria Arjona), things start to go sideways. Madison is young, pretty, and troubled. Unlike most of the people Gary encounters undercover, she isn’t seeking a payday or revenge, she just wants out from under her husband’s controlling—abusive?—thumb. Instead of baiting her into a confession, Ron tells her to keep her money and buy herself a new life. Then he walks away, letting her go.
All’s well that ends well, except Madison ends up texting “Ron”, and Gary responds, and soon enough, the newly separated Madison and Ron are in a full-blown affair. It’s hot, it’s steamy, it’s on. Living a double life, Ron sets down some super controlling rules of his own, though he is only trying to wall off his real—boring—life as Gary from Madison, who is falling for the dangerous Ron, and he doesn’t want to lose her should his true identity be revealed.
There is a whole thread in Hit Man about identity, self-perception, outward projection and perception, and change that is interesting, picking at threads Skip Hollandsworth brings up in his article about the real Gary’s ability to compartmentalize, his apparently messy personal life (three divorces), and his sedate life outside his work. In the film, Gary is friends with an ex who tells him studies show people can change, which Gary initially doubts. He has been unable to change thus far in life, and his experiences undercover only further convince him of people’s fundamental flaws.
But the more time Gary spends as “Ron”, the more the lines between his two personas begin to merge. Ron dresses better, does his hair better, has better sex; people like Ron more than they like Gary—GARY likes Ron more than he likes himself. But is any of it actually real? He has Madison convinced he’s a badass contract killer, but he is assuredly not, yet the more he lies to Madison, the more locked into the persona he becomes. And as Ron rubs off on him, it doesn’t change Gary for the worse, it only makes him more confident in his real life. We see his college students more engaged with his lessons, the other police officers listen to him, he’s less nervous and more assertive. Ron is a lie, and not a person anyone would actually want to be, but he’s making Gary better.
For a bit, anyway. Things inevitably go sideways, and the lies are exposed, mainly because Jasper really is a jackass. And Madison is maybe not everything SHE seems, either, which is the moral of the story, insofar as there is one. No one is ever just one thing, Gary had Ron inside him all along, he just needed a push to access that part of himself. Similarly, a part of Madison is always the woman who tried to have her husband killed. Have they changed, or just become more of themselves through their acquaintance?
There is a headiness in Hit Man that does justice to the twisty-turny nature of the plot, but there is also the sheen of sex and romance. One scene in particular combines the concepts of identity and perception being explored throughout the film with the sexiness of Gary/Ron and Madison. Let’s just say, Glen Powell and Adria Arjona are doing a triple act as actors, while their characters, Gary and Madison, are getting more and more visibly turned on while trying to enact a con. They can’t touch, they can’t say what they mean, it’s all in the eyes and the body language and the tone of their lies, and then it coalesces in a declaration that is simultaneously deeply romantic and totally off the deep end.
As co-collaborators, Linklater and Powell are a dream team, bringing out the best in each other in front of and behind the camera. Hit Man is a wildly entertaining, sexy, funny, romantic comedy that plays like a thriller. There are big ideas contained within a bonkers crime caper, the romance is both sweet and sour. No one is ever just one thing, and neither is Hit Man, but it never feels like it’s working hard. Like Powell and Arjona’s easy chemistry, the film clips along at a brisk pace, the plot twists building in scale and insanity so smoothly that the ending feels totally earned. It’s a sheer delight to watch, especially for Powell’s multifaceted performance. And it is so refreshing to see a film nail sexy crime vibes without dipping into anything too gross. Besides all the murder, I mean.
This review was published during the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes of 2023. The work being reviewed would not exist without the labor of writers and actors.