Hit Man (2023, dir. Richard Linklater) – BFI London Film Festival

by | Oct 4, 2023

Certificate: TBC

Running Time: 113 mins

UK Distributor: Netflix

UK Release Date: TBC

REVIEWED AT BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2023

WHO’S IN HIT MAN?

Glen Powell, Adria Arjona, Austin Amelio, Retta, Sanjay Rao, Evan Holtzman, Molly Bernard, Mike Markoff

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Richard Linklater (director, writer, producer), Glen Powell (writer, producer), Jason Bateman, Mike Blizzard and Michael Costigan (producers), Graham Reynolds (composer), Shane F. Kelly (cinematographer), Sandra Adair (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

A lowly professor (Powell) is hired to go undercover as an assassin…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON HIT MAN?

The traditional idea of the movie star is fleeting in today’s film climate. Very few films nowadays, even the bigger blockbusters, are carried by the presence of a big name as its lead, with the main selling point being the characters they play and the worlds they inhabit (this was amplified by Quentin Tarantino’s recent comments on Marvel positioning its various fictional heroes as the stars instead of the actors, something that even Captain America himself Chris Evans found himself agreeing with). It’s telling that, of the big releases to come out post-pandemic, only Top Gun: Maverick managed to put Tom Cruise’s star power forward as its USP, and still become a major worldwide success; most of everything else has relied less and less on its actors to draw in audiences.

On the smaller scale of things, it’s the turn of another Top Gun: Maverick actor to have their movie star moment. Glen Powell, an actor who has been consistently charming and charismatic in just about everything he’s been in (including, yes, last year’s Cruise vehicle), is about to explode in ways that modern-day actors rarely seem to do anymore, because his unworldly leading turn in Richard Linklater’s fantastically entertaining darkly comic thriller Hit Man feels like the birth of a bona fide movie star.

Powell, who also co-wrote the script with Linklater (and also produces), plays Gary Johnson, a Louisiana-based psychology and philosophy university professor whose life is very unextraordinary: he lives alone in a tiny apartment, is divorced but still on amicable terms with his ex-wife, and sports an unappealing combo of long, stringy hair and rimless spectacles. The only excitement he gets out of life is by occasionally helping out the local police department with sting operations, but one day he is unexpectedly called in to replace crooked cop Jasper (Austin Amelio) as a fake contract killer to entrap a suspect. To everyone’s surprise, including his own, Gary is phenomenal in the role, easily convincing the perp of his long “history” and adopting mannerisms that are well beyond his original character.

Soon, Gary finds himself embodying several other guises – including a dark-haired Russian, a gruff militia type, and something that can only be described as if Tilda Swinton played both Bonnie AND Clyde – to live out many exciting new lives while busting numerous criminals, but things start to get tricky when he meets Maddy (Adria Arjona), a woman looking for someone to bump off her abusive husband, and ends up in a passionate relationship with her as “Ron”, the hit man she originally tried to hire.

Here is a film that juggles numerous tones – it can be a straightforward comedy, but also a crime thriller, an erotic romance, a screwball farce, and even a courtroom drama – and not once does it manage to lose its grip. Linklater, on a level not seen since perhaps his underrated 2011 dark comedy Bernie, combines all these different genres in a way that never feels as though you’re suddenly watching a completely different film. The film flows rather beautifully as a result, and even when it can seem as though the switch from one tone to another is sudden and abrupt, there is still a playful attitude towards itself that helps keep it all stuck together.

The director is laser-focused on the plot – very loosely inspired by a magazine article about the exploits of the real-life Gary Johnson – and its wily nature throughout, executing the numerous twists and turns, which feel earned and true to the story being told, with a rousing passion that has, admittedly, been lost among the director for a number of years, even in some of his pretty good movies like Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood. It’s good to have this Linklater back, and on such vibrant form.

His and Powell’s script is very smart in how it plays around with themes of identity, as Powell’s character – whose knowledge and expertise of philosophy surrounding the ego is deeply infectious, to a point where his cats are even named Id and Ego – taps into all these differing personas with unspeakable ease, perhaps as a way to compensate for his underwhelming true self. He takes personal criticisms, including his inability to passionately perform in bed (a flippant comment by his ex-wife that elicited a few shocked groans in my audience), and applies them to perfect his smooth-talking “Ron” persona, who is not only a satisfying lover but also cool enough to casually pull a gun out on someone without flinching.

However, he’s also a character who knows when to drop the act, pretty much as soon as the situation becomes dangerous and when – slight spoiler – people start actually dying. The writers have tons of fun picking at these intriguing themes while still inserting plenty of great lines to keep the cool factor flowing (as an example, Gary, as hit man “Ron”, delivers the following on a date: “Chivalry may be dead, but I didn’t kill it”).

If the film around him has already achieved lift-off, then Glen Powell and his star-making performance sends it straight up into the stratosphere. His charisma in this movie is insane, as he commands the screen in every frame he’s in with an infectious smile and energy that’s impossible to resist. Funnily enough, it is reminiscent of a similar breakout performance in another Linklater movie: a then-unknown Matthew McConaughey, who stole hearts and minds with his “alright, alright, alright” catchphrase in Dazed and Confused some thirty years ago, in a role that set the pace for his career thereafter.

Powell should have, and even deserves, a similar trajectory after Hit Man is unleashed onto the world, because his screen presence here is amazingly charming, his comedic timing is spot-on, and his chemistry with love interest Adria Arjona (also great here) is fantastic, not to mention genuinely sexy, in a way not seen since George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez shared the screen in Out of Sight. This is very much Powell’s movie, maybe even more than it is Linklater’s, and for an actor who until now has shone in plenty of supporting roles, it is comforting to know that he is finally being rewarded for his perseverance.

With all of that under its belt, Hit Man manages to be a truly awesome movie that’s bound to become a future classic for many, and if nothing else it should put Glen Powell right up there with his Top Gun: Maverick co-star Tom Cruise as one of the sadly few true movie stars left in our film climate.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Hit Man is an awesomely entertaining comic thriller, which not only sees filmmaker Richard Linklater operating on a passionate level not seen from him in years, but also gives its endlessly charismatic lead and co-writer Glen Powell a fantastic opportunity to become the movie star he was always meant to be.

Five out of five stars

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