Hit Man: Richard Linklater’s Double Indemnity comedy hits the target dead-centre

Adria Arjona and Glen Powell in Hit Man
Adria Arjona and Glen Powell in Hit Man

The Texan director Richard Linklater is known for films that play with the passage of time: his Bafta- and Oscar-winning Boyhood, shot over more than a decade, and his Before trilogy, which checked in on a couple once every nine years. But he also does a nice line in comedies about local eccentrics – School of Rock, Bernie, his 1990 breakthrough feature Slacker – and Hit Man, which premiered to howls of laughter at Venice this evening, fits neatly into this second group.

Co-written by Linklater and its wildly likeable star, Top Gun: Maverick’s Glen Powell, it tells what is described on screen as a “somewhat true” story – but does quietly take one outrageous liberty, which is drolly revealed during the closing credits. Powell plays Gary Johnson, an affable New Orleans psychology lecturer who takes a second job as an investigator, gathering evidence for the police against embittered lovers plotting to have their partners killed. His MO is to pose as a professional assassin – a man-in-black type he give the name “Ron” – then record his would-be clients ordering the hit.

Suave, mysterious and bristly chinned, Ron is a seductive figure – not least to Gary himself, who allows his new outlaw persona to bleed into his formerly humdrum life. (“Excuse me, but when did our professor get hot?” one pupil whispers to another as he bounces and swaggers in front of the class.) But Ron also proves irresistible to one of his marks, a beautiful and troubled divorcee called Madison (Andor’s Adria Arjona), who is desperate to rid herself of her toxic ex.

The resulting pickle nimbly straddles the line between body-swap comedy and Double Indemnity-style crime thriller: Madison knows Gary only as Ron, so that’s who he has to be whenever he’s with her, though despite getting a taste for this dangerous fantasy life, he also has to try to talk her out of actually booking the hit.

This cat’s cradle of loyalties reaches its tangly climax in an inspired comic set-piece, where Gary’s colleagues – including his perennially suspicious predecessor Jasper (a good-value Austin Amelio) – remotely listen to him supposedly trying to pin down Madison’s guilt on tape once and for all, while he frantically coaches her answers in the other direction via his iPhone notes app.

Adria Arjona and Glen Powell in Hit Man
Adria Arjona and Glen Powell in Hit Man

Hit Man trips along on great writing, Linklater’s witty, light-touch direction and a rich sense of place, but what makes it especially pleasurable is Powell and Arjona’s naturally steamy rapport. Here is a screen couple who look like they really do want to take each other to bed – and since that makes them easy to root for, you find yourself happily overlooking the duo’s own mounting misdeeds. Well aware how the game works, Linklater ever-so-casually pushes his luck on this front right to the limit, but not a millimetre more. What slippery fun it is to watch him get away with it.


Cert tbc, 113 min. Screening at the Venice Film Festival; UK release has yet to be announced