Sundance 2024 Review: HIT MAN, Richard Linklater Directs Glen Powell in a Morally Relativistic Comedy-Drama
To hear Glen Powell tell the story, he decided to become an actor and writer on Richard Linklater’s Fast Food Nation.
It wasn’t his first or second role. It was his third. A not particularly significant part, it was more than enough to convince Powell that his future lay in acting, screenwriting, or possibly both.
Fast forward two decades and Powell, a breakout star thanks to his role in Top Gun: Maverick, co-wrote and performs in the Linklater-directed Hit Man, a comedy-drama loosely (operative word here being “loosely") inspired by a real-life “hit man,” Gary Johnson.
Neither the “real” Gary Johnson nor the fictionalized, self-mythologizing version played by Powell in the film, though, qualifies as a hitman. In both versions, Johnson, a full-time college professor and part-time tech dude, found himself inadvertently volunteering to go undercover as a hitman by a variety of not-too-bright, disgruntled future felons of America. Almost all had a gripe or beef with an ex-friend, a current spouse or partner, or just simply wanted a human obstacle removed from their immediate path with all deliberate speed. All, in time, failed.
In Hit Man: The Movie, Powell’s Johnson finds himself going undercover on a sting operation without the benefit of prep work. Going on gut instinct and a flare for the melodramatic, Johnson convinces his target of his bona fides, agrees to the hit, and takes the cash moments before law enforcement appears out of nowhere to pounce on the unsuspecting target, arrest said target, and send them to parts known (i.e., the local jail for booking and such).
Instantly fulfilled, not to mention thrilled at his sudden success, Johnson throws himself headlong into undercover work, creating a different persona for each sting operation, each one based on target-related research. It’s all fun and games, not to mention lucrative for someone surviving on a college professor’s salary.
After all, everyone the department targets deserves jail time for their felonious actions. In turn, Johnson’s action helps to keep the public — or a specific subset of the public — safe from harm.
That changes, of course, once Johnson meets Maddy Masters (Adria Arjona), the wife of a wealthy domestic abuser desperate to remedy an untenable situation by any means necessary, up to and including a permanent, final solution. Immediately besotted by Maddy and envisioning himself as a white knight of sorts, Johnson in his hit-man persona convinces her to rethink the hit, and before you can type “love interest,” Johnson and Maddy fall in lust, love, or some combination thereof, causing Johnson’s otherwise settled, well-ordered life into complication mode.
An all-time master of tone, atmosphere, and mood, Linklater (Boyhood, the Before trilogy, A Scanner Darkly) delivers one of his lightest, most engaging films in his career. With the charismatic Powell as co-writer and lead performer, plus a talented cast delivering breezy, lived-in performances, it’s no small wonder that Hit Man’s eventual swerve towards the ethically dubious and morally relativistic passes without almost a second thought. It’s a bold, audacious choice, one that both Linklater and Powell relish.
By then too, it’s practically too late for the fictional Johnson, Maddy, or the audience. We’ve well and truly brought into the fictional Johnson’s outrageous adventures and root for his self-preservation. Because Johnson has been such a root-worthy character from the get-go, it’s nearly impossible to change and root against him regardless of the circumstances or the choices he’s made, implicating the audience in his (potential) crimes and misdemeanors in the process.
Hit Man had its U.S. premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. Netflix will release the film June 7, 2024.
- Richard Linklater
- Richard Linklater
- Glen Powell
- Skip Hollandsworth
- Glen Powell
- Adria Arjona
- Austin Amelio