Five Cent Cine: Hit Man

Hit Man ★★1/2 (out of 4 stars)

Split Man

Since 1990, when his second film, “Slacker,” abandoned the standard 3-act, Hollywood story arc to follow Austin, Texas misfits in their random encounters, Richard Linklater has burnished his avant-garde reputation with “Dazed and Confused” (1993), “Boyhood” (2014), and other films reimagining cinema. Although based on a true and unusual story that could well have produced yet another inventive film, “Hit Man” has the feel (and arc) of a traditional rom-com: man meets woman, mutual attraction, sparks fly. The man is Gary (later Ron), a cute-approaching-handsome Glen Powell (maybe too cute, smiles too much in a Brad Pitt way, perfect for the arrogant “Hangman” antagonist to Tom Cruise in 2022’s “Top Gun: Maverick”). The woman is sexy and pretty (maybe too pretty) Madison (Adria Arjona). Ron and Madison share a playfulness with words that underpins a mutual pleasure in acting, in assuming roles. This pleasure produces some delightful comic scenes and is central to the film’s conceit, as a project interrogating basic concepts of what it means to “be” someone, to have a “self” or “selves.” 

The Ron/Madison relationship unfortunately takes over the film, unfortunately because the story inspiring Linklater to make the film is a special one, and the issues flowing from it are important and timely. Gary/Ron’s character is based on Gary Johnson, a New Orleans psychology professor who moonlighted for the police as a successful fake “hit man,” coaxing the unsuspecting folks who wanted to hire him to kill someone into statements and acts which will land them in prison. 

The two professions—professor and undercover agent—hardly seem compatible, and Linklater’s film and script (co-written with Powell and based on a magazine article by Skip Hollandsworth) directly engage the question of whether Powell’s introverted, nerdy, amiable, Honda Civic-driving Gary, a birder and cat lover with interests in paleontology and Freud, can re-imagine and remake himself into the nerves-of-steel tough guy (Ron) whom his clients will trust to do the killing they want done—and seal the deal with an incriminating envelope of cash.

It’s a worthy problem, and Gary’s introduction to his new line of work produces scenes that drip with tension, admiration for Gary/Ron as he navigates hair-raising moments, and some humor, as each perplexed perp is photographed and booked in preparation for years behind bars.

Madison (Adria Arjona) plays the commanding pilot in sex games with Ron (Glen Powell).

One of Ron’s “employers” is Madison, and here’s where the film begins to go wrong. In an effort to make the rom-com (and the Ron/Madison relationship) central to the story, Gary is required to re-imagine himself not just as a fake hit man, but as a killer, and movie-goers are required to imagine Madison as someone capable of doing away with her husband. We’re also asked to see Jasper (Austin Amelio), a skilled operative who once had Gary’s fake hit man job, as a truly horrible person who deserves whatever he gets. Linklater has taken us a long way from the real Gary Johnson’s experience, and it doesn’t work. It’s one thing for the director to probe whether Gary could act his way into something like a useful personality modification, another to suggest a performance could yield a transformation so complete that Gary—and his lover, Madison—would be tempted by the dark side.

The film shares with “Inside Out 2” the exploration of the psyche, with the animated production coming down on the side of each person having his or her own essence; it’s just a matter of finding the “real you.” “Hit Man” makes the case that a modest re-invention of the self is within reach for most of us, though its argument would have been more persuasive with some restraint. The script tries too hard to convince us—in the most didactic ways possible—of the possibilities of change, whether it’s Gary lecturing on the Id and Superego (his cats’ names) in his psychology classes, his ex-wife (conveniently a therapist) explicating Gary’s faults, or a student role-playing group deciding that eliminating a bad dude is morally acceptable to insure a unified and civil society. None of it justifies what happens in the film’s final moments.

Ron and Madison have entertained us with their flirtations, their passion, their humor (“all pie is good pie”), their fantasies (the pilot schtick is a nice touch), and their improv talents. All that joy, sullied. 

Date: 2024

Stars: 2.5 (out of 4)

Director: Richard Linklater

Starring: Glen Powell, Adria Arjona, Austin Amelio

Country: United States

Language: English

Runtime: 115 minutes

Other Awards: One nomination to date

Availability: In limited theaters nationally after a 2-week theater-only run. Streaming on Netflix (it’s principally a Netflix original production); see Justwatch here for future, expanded streaming availability.

Lead image: Glen Powell, left, is a little too cute for Gary/Ron, looking a lot like Brad Pitt.

See all Five Cent Cine reviews by 2 Film Critics

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