Is it something in the air? At this year’s Venice Film Festival, the unofficial theme appears to be hit men. David Fincher’s “The Killer” is all about an icy methodical professional executioner. Woody Allen’s “Coup de Chance” turns on an act of murder-for-hire. And now, just in time to steal the buzz from both of those movies, we have Richard Linklater’s “Hit Man,” a true-life screwball underworld romantic philosophical thriller comedy noir about the world’s unlikeliest undercover agent. He’s a one-of-a-kind movie hero, though in more ways than not he’s just like us.
The movie, which is based on a 2001 Texas Monthly article (it’s one of those “inspired by a true story” things, with plenty of fictional embellishment), tells the tale of Gary Johnson, a part-time college teacher who works for the New Orleans Police Department as a tech consultant, helping to make recordings of sting operations. Then he’s tapped to go undercover himself. Why would this even happen? The film presents it as a fluke — the veteran cop who was doing the gig gets suspended for bad behavior, and they need someone to step in at the last minute to impersonate a contract killer. Gary becomes that guy.
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Glenn Powell, the actor who plays him (he has had roles in everything from “Top Gun: Maverick” to Linklater’s “Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood” and “Everybody Wants Some!!”), gives a performance that’s an ongoing sleight-of-hand trick. Tall and slim, with a sweep of honey-brown hair, Powell has an offbeat leading-man vibe; he looks like Guy Pearce flecked with Ryan Gosling, with a slightly goofy grin that radiates the purest sincerity. In “Hit Man,” wearing rimless glasses, with hair cascading down into a nerd-hippie professorial wave, he plays Gary as an eager dweeb, a solitary divorced dude who is mostly content to be at home with his house plants and bird feeders, his cats, and his thoughts. At the University of New Orleans, Gary teaches a psychology class where he waxes on about Jung and Nietzsche, but when he’s making a plug for the Nietzschean ethos of go-for-broke self-liberation, a student snarks, “Says the guy driving the Civic.” That’s Gary, a geek who dreams big.
He’s a big talker, the kind of brainy chatterbox Linklater has relished ever since “Slacker.” And when he steps in as a substitute undercover agent, walking into a restaurant to meet a local scuzz who wants to have someone killed, he discovers that he’s good at it. He becomes cool and hard and mean, he riffs liked a seasoned sociopath — and the joke of it all is that we, in the audience, instantly recognize how a babbling nobody with zero crime-enforcement experience could be a natural at this. He’s drawing on all the popular culture he’s seen; he’s acting out the movie of his mind. “Okay! Daniel Day!” “says Claudette (Retta), one of his surveillance-van colleagues, after he nails that first assignment.
Yet it’s no wonder. As Gary explains in voice-over, the idea of the hit man, that paragon of homicidal efficiency we’ve all seen 10,000 times, may be a cherished part of movies and television, but it’s essentially fiction. Hit men, says Gary, don’t really exist; they’re mostly a mythology. And the people he’s going undercover to arrest are ordinary folks — they want to bump off the spouse they hate, or whatever — who think it’s that easy, but it’s not.
Just why the New Orleans police (the real Gary Johnson operated in Houston) would want to spend their time nabbing these people, in what amounts to a highly questionable form of entrapment, remains a bit fuzzy. Nevertheless, it becomes Gary’s new job, and he goes at it with gusto. He starts to wear disguises: scars, tattoos, beards, wigs, hats, a cigar, a Russian accent. He’s a chameleonic actor who creates whole characters, something the film has a lot of fun with, culminating in the moment when he appears as some sort of carrot-topped nonbinary English psycho.
Neither Gary nor the movie shed any tears over the desperate people he’s laying traps for. But then he has a coffee-shop meeting with Madison (the vibrantly saucy Adria Arjona), a forlorn beauty who wants to kill her abusive dirtbag husband. The persona that Gary has adopted this time is that of a sleek man in black named Ron, who is so cocksure in his laidbackness that he’s…hot. He listens to her sob story, and the two of them start to flirt — but he’s flirting as Ron. He’s not just playing the role of a hired killer. He’s pretending to be someone whose stone coldness makes him sexy, and in doing so he becomes sexy. “Ron” and Madison fall for each other.
But this leaves Gary in a tricky spot. Ron convinces Madison not to hire him, which raises the eyebrows of Gary’s colleagues. And as Ron and Madison start seeing each other, with her husband still in the way, the film becomes a kind of noir with corkscrew twists. Gary and Ron now have separate motivations that are going to keep getting in the way of each other. And the more that Gary tries to keep this all offstage, the more that Jasper, the officer he replaced (who is back after his suspension), realizes that something is up. Jasper is played, in a scene-stealing turn, by Austin Amelio, who suggests Vincent Gallo reprising the role of Wooderson from “Dazed and Confused” (just in time for that film’s 30th anniversary of release, which is in three weeks). Jasper, with his greasy long hair and scuzzy mug and brash instincts, is the veteran too smart to fool, the fly in every ointment.
“Hit Man” is studded with delicious moments, but as amusing as the movie is it has a plot that sprawls forward in a rather ungainly fashion, and it goes on for too long. The original Texas Monthly article was written by Skip Hollandsworth, who also wrote the investigative piece that Linklater’s “Bernie” (2011) — starring Jack Black as a caretaker-turned-killer — was based on, and “Bernie,” with its fusion of black wit and true crime, was a tighter, more resonant film. At the climax of “Hit Man,” there’s a bravura sequence with Madison, Jasper, and Ron, now unmasked as Gary but still thinking, “What would Ron do?” After that, though, the movie grows overly self-conscious about being a meditation on “identity.” It asks: If we choose to act in a different way, can we change who we are inside? Maybe so, but in “Hit Man” all that really comes down is that Gary emerges from his shell of geekdom and learns to be a little cooler, tougher, and better dressed. I couldn’t help feeling that he might have accomplished pretty much the same thing with a “Queer Eye” makeover.
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