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  • Writer's pictureJames McCleary

Hit Man // Film Review

“All pie is good pie.”

The title Hit Man is a bit of a loaded one, pun intended. It’s a title with a certain expectation behind it, which isn’t helped by the casting of action movie star Glen Powell (Top Gun: Maverick) in the lead role. Hit Man is not only a subversion of those expectations, but a dramatisation of them. It is a story about titles and performers, taking a glib look at the different identities we wear and how we use them to categorise others. It is also exceedingly funny and positively labyrinthian in its twisting, razor-sharp storytelling. Indeed, it is the recommendation of this writer that one stop reading here until they have seen the film. The less known, and assumed about its contents, the better.

Hit Man is the story of Gary Johnson (Powell), a philosophy professor by day whose “side hustle” is undercover police work. Gary is part of a totally unique (and certainly unethical) unit who pose as hitmen in order to coax the clients who hire them into admitting their intent to murder. Crucially, Gary loves his job probably a bit too much. In his academic work he is fascinated by ideas of the id and ego, and relishes each opportunity to psychoanalyse each new client through a process he calls “research”. Here, Gary selects the persona, accent and even costuming of the hitman each target would most want to do business with. He chooses the location, the price and even a range of kill methods for the buyer to pick from - whatever it takes to get a confession from his mark. Although Gary insists hitmen aren’t actually real, he is in every meaningful way the legal equivalent.

Powell plays Gary not as a chameleon, which might have been the obvious choice, but rather as a theatre nerd whose excitement over play acting helps him come to terms with the ethical nightmare of his chosen career. Gary by-day is a keen birdwatcher who drives a Honda Civic and draws sniggers from his students when he tells them to “seize the day”. That mockery and emasculation extends to his colleagues and ex-wife too, but Gary doesn’t seem to care. He is an unimpeachably, comfortably friendly man, the absolute inverse of toxicity.

Things get more interesting once Powell gets to add a layer however, whether it be through playing a Russian assassin or the eternally cool “Ron”. All of a sudden, Gary’s geekiness is poured into several genuinely convincing, if a touch over-prepared, performances which ooze with what he must believe to be hyper-masculinity. It’s a complicated performance to pull off; there must be enough of Gary left in each of his characters, without it being so obvious as that the client couldn’t be convincingly fooled. Fortunately, Powell’s scathing take on machoism is not only pitch perfect but also establishes him as one of this generation’s better-ranged comedic actors, far more than just a pretty face.

The other anomaly when it comes to the nature of a film like Hit Man is its director/co-writer, Richard Linklater (School of Rock, The Before Trilogy). Linklater has never been one to tie himself to a single genre; even his filmmaking style is largely without signature, following quite a general template of compositions and techniques. Instead, he has taken on a bit of everything from romantic epics to veteran road trips to animated flights to the moon. Hit Man is Linklater’s first gun-toting ‘crime’ film, yet it is so unbound to a single filmic identity that Linklater’s largely invisible style allows it to shift between multiple genres and tones. In the space of a single sequence, we can move from broad studio comedy into a tense heist with even a few steamy erotic thrills somewhere in the middle. From scene-to-scene, or even cut-to-cut, we never know quite where Gary’s web of lies will take him next.

If Hit Man is the story of a guy with a million faces, then there might be no better filmmaker than Linklater to hit that mark. Read nothing, hear nothing and cover your eyes when the trailer comes on in theatres. Hit Man deserves to be seen blind, so expect the unexpected. It won't do you much good anyway.

Reviewed at the Venice Film Festival.


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