Film reviews and more since 2009

Hit Man (2024) review

Dir. Richard Linklater

By: Steve Pulaski

Rating: ★★★

Richard Linklater’s Hit Man is based on a 2001 Texas Monthly article by Skip Hollandsworth. If the latter name sounds familiar, Hollandsworth, a notable crime author for the aforementioned regional magazine and beyond, was the co-writer of Bernie, alongside Linklater. Bernie was based off of another one of Hollandsworth’s articles, and was one of the best films of 2011.

Although he’s not a co-writer here (this time, it’s the veteran director working alongside actor Glen Powell), the partnership between Linklater and Hollandsworth makes beautiful music once again in a fiercely original movie that is brought to life by dynamic performances, memorable characters, and a successful fusion of genres — exactly what Linklater has been bringing to the table over the course of four decades.

Glen Powell, whose star might be one of the fastest-rising in all of Hollywood at this time, plays Gary Johnson, a real-life individual who died in 2023 and to whom the film is dedicated. Gary is a remarkably unremarkable psychology professor who spends his days at the University of New Orleans and his nights as an engineer for the city’s police department, specifically on their undercover sting operations. His life might not be glamorous, but he enjoys every bit of it, even if he fights occasional loneliness; nothing a little quality time with his kitties can’t fix.

Gary works closely with the New Orleans PD’s top secret “Hitman unit,” which is designed to catch criminals willing to pay an individual (an undercover cop wearing a wire) to off someone. When they have their perp admitting in no ambiguous terms his request in exchange for money, cops swarm their location and bust him. Gary has no interest in playing a faux hitman, but he has no choice once Jasper (Austin Amelio), the go-to “killer,” is suspended without pay for an extended period of time.

Shockingly, Gary handles his first assignment with the poise and conviction of a vet. He riffs with the suspect, shares some gruesome details of past (fake) jobs, and gets a confession good enough for police to swarm. Gary has taught psychology long enough to know about personality abandonment, so he disassociates from his milquetoast self, drops his voice about an octave lower, buys an assortment of disguises, and becomes “Ron” as the jobs start to pile up.

Enter Madison (Adria Arjona in a breakout performance), a woman in a desperate way as she is at her wits’ end navigating an abusive relationship. Money isn’t an object for Madison; she simply wants her husband (Evan Holtzman) dead. In their first wiretapped discussion, Gary/Ron stops short of getting a confession out of Madison, believing she’s making a mistake and that he can help her see the error of her drastic ways. The mutual banter between the two that is designed to see if one another is legit slowly gives way to flirting. In no time, Gary not only has a new identity, but a new girlfriend, who believes he’s an experienced killer-for-hire.

If that sounds lofty and somewhat complicated, I’d hope you’ve seen a couple Linklater movies (Dazed and Confused, School of Rock, the Before trilogy) to trust one of the finest living American directors to make it all hum. Hum it does, as Hit Man fluidly moves between comedy, romance, suspense, and crime-drama, notably without resorting to a massive body-count in a misguided attempt at entertainment. Few movies suggest violence and then smartly navigate around it. There are cartoons with larger body counts than this film.

Beyond the smartly written script, so much of Hit Man‘s success is a credit to Powell, whose star-making turn in Top Gun: Maverick seems to have only been the tip of the iceberg in terms of what he can accomplish. Still unfairly attractive and charismatic even when supposedly playing someone with “a forgettable face,” Powell’s confidence is on full display. The suave 35-year-old performer collaborated with Linklater on Everybody Wants Some!! eight years ago, and even as a background character, you sensed gravitas and swagger. Powell’s energy is just magnetic, and the chemistry he musters with Ajorna — whose agent should be busy for the rest of the year and beyond as far as I’m concerned — is rich and sexy.

Consider my favorite sequence in Hit Man, where Powell’s Gary is wearing a wire whilst entering Ajorna’s Madison’s home. When he’s out of the PD van’s view, he alerts Madison of the wire via notes on his cell-phone, and uses them to coach her into saying what his crew wants to hear. There’s multiple layers of skill in this scene. One has two actors playing their characters. Another has them sharing a moment of secrecy, while flexing their chemistry, with one another. Finally, the third has them performing for an unseen audience. It’s here, and in many other moments, where Ajorna shines, exhibiting the rare range that often gets smothered in movies where the plot takes more than two minutes to explain.

But that’s another thing: Hit Man isn’t an overly complicated film. It’s thoughtfully paced and enthusiastically acted, not to mention a rare work of quality from Netflix, who has been in the business of eight/nine-figure misfires for over a decade now. The winning formula for the streamer seems to be giving director’s autonomy over the stories they want to tell. Such a move even worked for Tyler Perry with A Jazzman’s Blues. Naturally, it works extremely well for Linklater, whose filmography grows more unique and diverse with another enjoyable entry.

NOTE: Hit Man is now available to stream exclusively on Netflix.

Starring: Glen Powell, Adria Ajorna, Austin Amelio, Retta, Sanjay Rao, Gralen Bryant Banks, Molly Bernard, and Evan Holtzman. Directed by: Richard Linklater.

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About Steve Pulaski

Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!

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