Hit Man (Netflix) – streaming review

For a while now, Glen Powell has largely traded on his (very) good looks. His recent cinema outing Anyone But You, proved a box office hit. But the actor spreads his wings somewhat as an undercover agent in Richard Linklater’s Hit Man. I say “somewhat” because he still can’t entirely escape his genetic gifts in this rather crazy blend of romance and crime.

The film is loosely based on the real-life adventures of Gary Johnson, a professor and (bizarrely) undercover agent for the police. The story was first told as a long-form piece in the magazine Texas Monthly by Skip Hollandsworth, who co-wrote the screenplay with Linklater and Powell. This collaboration proves a reunion for Hollandsworth and Linklater after Bernie (2011). That film – also based on a true story reported by Hollandsworth – has a similar vibe to Hit Man. Although the real events took place in Texas, the film transplants the tale to New Orleans.

At the start of the film Gary (Powell) is a psychology professor at a New Orleans university. He’s socially awkward and a bit of a loner, but good at what he does. He also helps out the police department with covert recordings of suspects trying to hire hitmen. The scenario is a sting, since the “hitmen” don’t exist. They’re police officers pretending to be guns for hire. However one day the regular officer, Jasper (Austin Amelio), doesn’t show. With the suspect getting antsy, lead officer Claudette (Retta) presses Gary into the role. Surprisingly, he’s a natural. He’s soon the number one choice, even after Jasper’s return.

Things take a turn though when Gary, posing as a hit man named Ron, meets with Madison (Adria Arjona). She’s trying to escape an abusive spouse and in desperation has turned to possible murder as a solution. Madison and Gary click. Perhaps realising Madison will go to jail if she “hires” him, Gary convinces her murder isn’t the way. Soon their relationship blossoms into romance. Only trouble is that Madison is in love with “Ron”, not the nerdy Gary. How long can Gary live a lie? A confluence of circumstances will test the limits of Gary’s personal and professional lives.

For the most part, Hit Man is a compelling and enjoyable crime dramedy. My reservation is about the final scenes which (as the filmmakers admit in a coda) didn’t actually happen and seem out of synch with the remainder of the film. It almost felt like they couldn’t find a suitable ending so just went for the most extreme option. The jarring conclusion aside, the film still has a lot to offer. High on that list is a rollicking soundtrack of New Orleans-influenced music (which might have something to do with the change of scene).

But what really makes this work is a pair of strong performances from Glen Powell (Anyone But You) and Adria Arjona (Morbius). Powell is charming as ever in the role of Gary, but gets to show some range with the dual personalities in the role. Arjona delivers a fiery performance as the complicated Madison. And while their individual performances are fine, their on-screen chemistry certainly elevates the material. In the supporting roles, Austin Amelio (The Walking Dead series) is suitably menacing as the perhaps-unhinged Jasper, while Retta (80 for Brady) and Sanjay Rao (The Flight Attendant series) add colour as Gary’s support team.

Hit Man perhaps doesn’t have the intellectual heft of some of Linklater’s other work (like the Before films) but it’s also something of a return to form after the disappointing Where’d You Go, Bernadette? (2019). This is about as breezy as murder-for-hire gets (contrast, for example, David Fincher’s more cerebral The Killer). And while it may not hit all its marks, it’s still an entertaining evening in front of the TV.

David Edwards

Other reviews you might enjoy: