Hit Man is full of ‘humanity and charm’

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Richard Linklater’s New Orleans crime yarn starring Glen Powell is “delightful” and “genuinely fun”, writes Nicholas Barber from the Venice Film Festival.

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If you’re looking for a laidback, heartwarming comedy that happens to be about deceit, corruption and murder, then Hit Man is the film for you. Directed and co-written by Richard Linklater, the maker of Boyhood, School of Rock and the Before trilogy, it may be too relaxed and slight to match his finest work, and it may not win any prizes at the Venice Film Festival, where it had its premiere this week. But this delightful New Orleans crime yarn has all of Linklater’s customary humanity and charm, as well as a quality that is scarce in cinemas today: it’s genuinely fun.

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An opening caption promises a “somewhat true story” inspired by a university lecturer named Gary Johnson, who is played by Linklater’s co-writer, Glen Powell (Top Gun: Maverick). Gary tries to inspire his philosophy and psychology students with Nietzsche quotes about living on the edge, but he doesn’t exactly practise what he preaches. After work every day, this geeky birdwatching enthusiast drives his Honda Civic back to his suburban bungalow, where he feeds his cats, Id and Ego, and eats a quiet dinner at the world’s smallest kitchen table.

But there is some excitement in Gary’s life. Skilled at electronics, he supplements his income with a part-time police surveillance job, recording people who think they are hiring a contract killer, but are actually incriminating themselves by talking to an undercover cop. Then he gets more excitement than he bargained for. When the cop who usually pretends to be an assassin is suspended, Gary has to stand in at the last minute – and to his and his colleagues’ amazement, he turns out to be a natural. As wimpy as he is most of the time, he has a gift for getting into the character of a cold-blooded murderer, and improvising the grisly details of the executions he claims to have made. He then uses his psychology expertise to vary his character from case to case, using different disguises and different personae to suit each potential client. Discovering a whole new side to himself, he has a ball – and Linklater and Powell are clearly having a ball, too. There are hilarious scenes of Gary trying out more and more outrageous outfits and accents, and getting more and more shocked reactions from his police handler (Retta).

The inevitable complication arrives when he encounters a gorgeous young woman, Madison (Adria Arjona), who wants rid of her tyrannical husband. Sensing that her heart isn’t in it, Gary talks her out of the plan, and she repays him by asking him on a date. He knows that he should turn her down, but Linklater takes time and care to build the pair’s mutual attraction until the sexual chemistry is bubbling more fiercely than it has in the last dozen romantic comedies I’ve seen put together. As well as everything else, Hit Man is that rare film that convinces you that the hero and heroine really, really fancy each other. The snag is that Madison has the hots for a confident, dog-loving hit man, so what if she finds out that he is actually a meek, cat-loving academic?

Hit Man

Director: Richard Linklater

Cast: Glen Powell, Adria Arjona, Retta

Run time: 1hr 53m

There are other dangers inherent in living such a high-stakes double life, of course, and problems soon come from various amusingly unexpected places. But even when the situation gets fraught, Hit Man keeps its breezy feel-good mood. Another, crueller writer-director would have pivoted to scenes of bloody violence, but Linklater prefers to ponder the question of whether you can will yourself into becoming a different person. Could Gary’s assassin identity be a better and more authentic one than his lecturer identity? Linklater is also clever enough to address the legal and ethical issues of a scheme that is a whisker away from entrapment, and he offers a cheeky critique of all the many hitman movies that are foisted upon us every year. Contract killers don’t exist, he seems to say; they’re a daft pop-culture fantasy. You can’t blame Gary for enjoying that fantasy, especially when he lets us enjoy it so much, too.

★★★★☆

Hit Man is released on 3 October in the US.

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