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Glen Powell is a top gun, but “Hit Man” misses the mark

Based on a true story, Richard Linklater’s latest feature is compelling but lacks coherence

<p>Though he is not the typical mold for a killer, after the department’s go-to is put on a forced sabbatical, Gary must step in on a sting operation to incriminate and catch the would-be employer of a hit man.</p>

Though he is not the typical mold for a killer, after the department’s go-to is put on a forced sabbatical, Gary must step in on a sting operation to incriminate and catch the would-be employer of a hit man.

The summer of Glen Powell has begun. A star a long time in the making, the actor has seen a meteoric rise in fame in the wake of 2022’s “Top Gun: Maverick.” Since then, he has jumped head-first into the leading man capacity, cementing his well-deserved celebrity by starring in several films, including as the eponymous contract killer in “Hit Man.”

The film, which Powell co-wrote and co-produced alongside director and longtime collaborator Richard Linklater, premiered at the Venice Film Festival back in September 2023. Much like the rest of Linklater’s filmography, “Hit Man” cannot and does not want to be confined to any particular classification of film and is instead an amalgam of genre that befits its chameleon of a protagonist — though sometimes to its detriment. 

Its plot, according to the opening titles, is “somewhat true,” loosely based on a 2001 Texas Monthly story of a real man working as a fake contract killer for his local police department. Gary Johnson is first introduced as a mild-mannered philosophy professor — a socks-and-sandals type of guy, who enjoys bird-watching and names his cats after tenets of the Freudian psyche. 

Johnson moonlights in tech support for the police department, but after a last-minute personnel loss is forced to step in on a sting operation, playing the part of a hit man while wearing a wire to incriminate the person who seeks to hire him.

To his supervisors’ surprise, Johnson kills it — pun intended — and so he graduates into the role of fake hit man full-time. Finding a talent for the theatricality of tailoring himself to the expectations of his clients, Gary adopts a series of alter egos — from a slick-haired “American Psycho” type to a freckled, redheaded sociopath to a greasy mobster complete with fake teeth and a leather trench coat — to help him get the job done. These costumes not only highlight Powell’s range but add levity to a first act that otherwise lacks humor and drags in its dependence on establishing context. 

The persona with whom audiences get to spend the most time is Ron, suave and self-assured and styled with minimum props and maximum Powell. It is under this alias that Gary encounters Madison Masters, played by Adria Arjona, who brings some much-needed spark and steam to the film after a slow start. The two share a piece of pie as he convinces her not to hire him to kill her abusive husband, saving her from herself — by keeping her conscience clear — and from self-incrimination in the process. 

Inevitably, they also hit it off — another pun, sorry — and hijinks ensue in a twisty and unpredictable third act. There are many directions in which Linklater and Powell could have taken the script, but though they do introduce some darker plot points, they ultimately choose to keep things fun and frivolous, wrapping some but not all of the loose ends up in an ending that feels slightly unsatisfying and unbalanced.

“Seize the identity you want for yourself,” Gary tells his class near the close of the film, a sort of thesis statement of what the last 115 minutes have sought to prove. Yet the questions of self and identity raised both through Gary’s teachings and his operations fail, for the most part, to be answered.

 “Hit Man” attempts to be a study on how taking on different characters evolves Gary’s own character, but this evolution feels unrealistic — sure, he takes off his glasses and discovers he was beautiful all along, but how could he not be when played by Glen Powell?

Powell has certainly established himself as a true, old-timey movie star, finally — finally — getting the opportunity to claim his stardom. But that is also the problem — that he cannot help but be a movie star, and so does not quite make sense in the role of Gary. He is too leading man to be an everyman, too hot to be a geek and too charming to be unable to maintain a “normal relationship,” as he tells his ex-wife in the first act.  

By contrast, the actor easily embodies the character of Ron, a smooth-talking charmer who more closely resembles his typical on-screen persona, and so as whom — just like in “Top Gun: Maverick,” “Anyone But You” and 2018’s criminally underrated “Set It Up” — he is able to really shine. The film’s best scenes, most notably a sequence involving the Notes app, are incredible showcases both for Powell and for Arjona. Scenes like this make clear that Linklater is not only aware but taking full advantage of the ample talent he has on hand. 

For all its faults, “Hit Man” is undeniably fun when enjoyed with a crowd and a bucket of popcorn — it is a shame, then, that this movie will only see a limited theatrical release before coming to streaming. The summer romp’s exciting twists and turns overshadow its unrealistic elements when viewed on the big screen, though these flaws may be more visible when seen from a couch with a device in hand. See it in theaters if possible, and hope that it is not lost to the algorithm when it does arrive on Netflix June 7. 


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