Be All You Can Be: Light Touch Identity Comedy Hit Man Prizes Romance, Humor Over Action

Both innocuously entertaining and sincere in its belief in human reinvention, Hit Man is at once a put-on and a consideration, one enlivened by the chemistry of two hot stars.

7 mins read

The construct of identity—things we believe ourselves to be, limiting notions of what we could become and the potential for self-evolution—power Richard Linklater’s Hit Man, a feather-light comedy about a mild-mannered college professor who moonlights as a phony hit man, only to fall hard for a sexy, and just maybe, femme fatale. 

In the titular role of this enjoyable if slight picture, star Glen Powell, the thirty-five-year-old Austin native currently having a 2024 moment on the box office success of the hit romantic comedy Anyone But You, makes the Hit Man fun look effortless in a film he cowrote with long-time friend and collaborator Linklater. They based their breezy picture on a 2001 Texas Monthly expose chronicling the exploits of one Gary Johnson, a college professor who pulled off a similar dual-life ruse, aiding police in the apprehension of dozens of would-be murder-for-hire seekers.  

Powell approximates a fictional Gary Johnson, whom we first meet as a milquetoast University of New Orleans academic—bespectacled, low-key, of little distinction—with a side hustle for the local cops as a techie surveillance geek, wiretapping ordinary citizens looking for contract killers to make their spouses and friends disappear. But when Gary unexpectedly steps out of the undercover van and into the role of the fake hitman for hire—a cool cat named “Ron” and sort of Superman to his real-life Clark Kent—he’s energized by the self-actualizing brio that comes with being close to the action.

Powell has a ball with this new master of disguise persona, donning wigs and accents while juggling characters that allow him to broadly sketch Brits, Russians, tattooed American rednecks—you name it—and this is undeniably silly fun. But just like his lecture on Freud’s Id to his malleable philosophy and psych students, Gary begins to seriously entertains what it means to be Ron—cocksure, blond, alpha, oozing charm—never more than when the comely, potential sting target Maddy (Adria Arjona) enters the picture, wanting (in true Matty Walker Body Heat style) Ron to take her estranged husband out. 

Sensing a little girl lost (and their instant chemistry), smitten Ron- er, Gary lets Maddy off the procedural hook, instead finding himself on hers, the pair embarking on a spry courtship firmly rooted in mutual boundaries. While Gary insists Maddy can’t know anything about his profession as a killer, what might she be guarding? Their off-limits agreement is “signed” and “initialed” (in a sexy scene), all but ratifying a steamy fling. But on whose terms?

The dynamism of stars Powell and Arjona makes for an electric pairing, a tete-tete tinged with sex and suspicion, both actors enlivening a clandestine sensuality that just might doom their characters. To say more would be a crime, but late in the picture comes a scene between them so clever and well acted—involving a wiretap, a smartphone and some fine acting finesse—you can’t help but want these in-too-deep paramours to beat the potential rap (Maddy’s ex-husband’s unexpected expiration) that Glen’s law enforcement colleague (Austin Amelio) is building around them. As the stars dance around their budding romance, the movie gives them rat-a-tat-tat dialogue that vibrates on sheer chemistry, whether in and out of the sack, bubble baths or headlong into trouble.

Across Linklater’s understated comedy, Powell is obviously having a grand old time playing a kooky kaleidoscope of characters (at times reminiscent of Tracy Ullman’s brand of sketch versatility) while reinforcing his clear knack for romantic comedy. He also plays on his third base natural confidence and looks, which for nerdy Gary gradually emerge like a testosterone shot makeover, one which just may be the real him, finally released. 

And the sensational Arjona has a vocal instrument—alternating low-toned sultriness with a deceptively airy sweetness—that makes Maddy a sexy enigma. The actress gives a canny performance, never fully letting us in on what makes Maddy tick. In some regards the character is a classic noir vixen; irresistibly hot, sure, but beneath the bod Arjona suggests an engine of devilishness that may be Maddy’s smartest asset, both in bed and, perhaps, crime.

It’s easy to appreciate that Hit Man favors low key romance and humor when we expect an obligatory action climax; good romantic comedies sometimes do that, like Jonathan Demme’s memorable Something Wild, which supplanted the screwball with blunt danger in its final reel. We might think we are getting into the story of a fated contact killer and a violent femme, but Linklater instead delivers a lark about our untapped potential. 

Both innocuously entertaining and sincere in its belief in human reinvention, Hit Man is at once a put-on and consideration. Linklater delivers this package as a winning combo of comedy, movie-star turns and even a bit of pointed theory about personal rebirth. I’m not sure Hit Man’s comic-sweet, storybook final sequence works in selling the idea that its meet-cute couple was meant to be—why should fake identities, a pair of dead bodies and a couple of suspicious minds get in the way of happily ever after?

3 stars

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.