Hit Man Is a Glen Powell Rom-Com Turned Film Noir

Richard Linklater’s new film, Hit Man, works thanks to the star power and charm of Glen Powell. You won’t even mind the not-entirely-convincing film noir twist.

Still from Hit Man. (Netflix)

You might’ve heard about Hit Man, Richard Linklater’s latest film that got shafted with a nominal theatrical release before landing at Netflix. It’s receiving a lot of flattering attention as a highly entertaining romantic comedy that takes a dark noirish turn.

Glen Powell (Anyone but You, Top Gun: Maverick) gets his best shot yet at major stardom playing Gary Johnson, a nerdy college lecturer teaching philosophy and psychology classes, with a part-time job working for the New Orleans Police Department that develops in a bizarre direction. He starts off working tech support for an undercover cop posing as a hit man to entrap people in murder-for-hire schemes. Then Gary finds himself unexpectedly asked to step into the fake hit man role. His natural flair for the work instantly impresses everybody. There’s an amusing montage of Gary adopting various disguises, behaviors, and accents, based on his psychological research into what hit man persona each client will find compelling.

Powell, an actor with a lot of easygoing charm, seems to get a big kick out of playing a dorky bird-watching teacher and his various fantasy hit man projections. My personal favorite was the effete British “ginger” hit man whose vivid auburn-haired bowl cut and thick overlay of freckles contrasted so well with his all-black outfit and sinister, tight-smiling politeness.

Things start to go off the rails when he’s assigned to meet a beautiful woman named Madison Figueroa Masters (Adria Arjona of Walking Dead, also a charmer) who’s considering a lethal way of freeing herself from her abusive husband. Sympathetic — and not coincidentally, highly attracted to her — Gary lets her off the hook before she can implicate herself. Soon they’re having a hot clandestine affair, with Gary staying in the hit man role he designed based on her psychological profile, playing suave, handsome “Ron.”

Maintaining his double life gets more complicated when the abusive husband Ray (Evan Holtzman) comes back into the picture, as well as the vengeful dirtbag cop Jasper (Austin Amelio) whose undercover job got taken over by Gary. Both threaten the happiness of the newly formed couple, “Ron” and Madison. But continuous exposure to the whole “hit man” set of behaviors has made both of them willing to take surprisingly extreme measures to extricate themselves from their tormenters. Though perhaps the seeds of rebellion have already been planted in mild-mannered Gary in his college courses, when he quotes Friedrich Nietzsche approvingly:

The secret for harvesting from existence the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment is: to live dangerously! Build your cities on the slopes of Vesuvius! Send your ships into uncharted seas! Live at war with your peers and yourselves!

And in his “Ron” persona, Gary adds a new truism: “Some people need killin’.”

Powell’s Gary character is based on the experiences of the late, fake hit man of the same name, a teacher and avid gardener and “animal-loving Buddhist” whose outlandish professional exploits working in the Houston, Texas, area were chronicled in a piece that ran in the Texas Monthly called “Hit Man.” It was written by Skip Hollandsworth, who also wrote the nonfiction source material for Linklater’s 2011 film Bernie. There are clear similarities between the two projects.

Each film begins as a sunny tale centered on a sweet-natured, adorkable fellow who’s a valued member of the community till his life takes a sudden turn toward the dark side involving murder, intrigue, and wildly extravagant lying. Bernie stars Jack Black as a kindly, caring, eccentric, community-minded undertaker who becomes involved with a wealthy old woman (Shirley MacLaine) who’s notoriously mean and controlling. Bernie winds up killing her, but he spends her money so beneficially for others, and he’s so beloved by the community, they’re all rooting for him to beat the murder rap.

Both films — and I guess this is where you need spoiler alerts, so go watch Hit Man before you continue reading — end up in murder that’s regarded within the world of the narrative as justifiable homicide.

Bernie stays close to the real-life narrative it’s based on, whereas Hit Man veers sharply away from what actually happened to the real Gary Johnson, a bookish loner who was married and divorced three times. He did indeed help one young woman caught in an abusive relationship extricate herself from potentially deep trouble with the law, by getting her help from a therapist and social service agencies. But there was no hot romance. In short, you won’t have any trouble recognizing where the movie Hit Man departs from reality. As soon as you move into genre territory — rom-com and film noir — you’ll know you’re not in Kansas anymore.

Still from Hit Man. (Netflix)

It’s a strange genre hybrid, and the gears grind appallingly at certain points, as film noir conventions fail to mesh with rom-com ones, and we’re asked to believe that these characters can move so blankly and effortlessly into murder and mayhem. Madison doesn’t mind thinking her new boyfriend is a hit man, and then, after a minor emotional bump, doesn’t mind when she finds out he’s a shill for the cops, even after she’s used his tutelage to kill her husband. And Gary quickly forgets that he was convinced Madison wanted her husband out of the way for the insurance money, in classic femme fatale style. It seems the sex is just that good.

And Gary, who gets progressively more Ron-like the longer he plays the role, changes in a fake-it-till-you-make-it way that the audience is clearly supposed to be onboard with. Again, the seeds of this development are planted in Gary’s classroom when he posits to his students the reliable old undergraduate mind-bender, “What if your ‘self’ is a construction, an illusion, an act, a role you’ve been playing every day since you can remember?”

Given how popular Hit Man is, I assume I’m the only one who in the end mourns the loss of the nice bespectacled nerd from the beginning of the movie who liked animals and never should’ve gotten into police work in the first place. Though there’s one late scene that works wonderfully and offers a glimpse into the narrative logic Linklater and Powell (who cowrote the script) seem to be pursuing but not always capturing. It’s when Gary and Madison, who have become suspects in murders, enact a phony verbal drama for the police, who are listening in on the wire Gary’s wearing. They ad-lib wildly as Gary silently writes dialog and acting instructions to Madison on his phone. Though both are in a panic, they carry it off so deftly you can see how this high-wire way of life is ultimately exhilarating.

But then that makes the film’s ending land with a thud, when we find them again years later, middle-class and married with children, attending school events, and telling the kids a white-washed version of their early romance. All that murder and law-breaking and play-acting and ecstatic improvisation, just to become Mr and Mrs Conventional Couple? Huh.

Still, it’s always a pleasure to have Linklater making movies as pure entertainment, even if this one did get inexplicably dumped at Netflix with almost no theatrical release. Never forget this is the guy — best known for independent art films like Slacker (1990), Waking Life (2001), and Boyhood (2014) — who directed School of Rock (2003), one of the most delightful comedies of the twenty-first century. Hit Man is nowhere near that pantheon of achievement, but it’s an often enjoyable distraction, especially as the lead-up to the summer moviegoing season continues to show us nothing exciting on the horizon.