Film

Netflix's Hit Man is what we used to call 'a good time at the movies' – but times have changed

Richard Linklater's latest debunks the myth of assassins for hire while piling on the black comedy

Glen Powell in Hit Man

Shooting star: Glen Powell as the dork passing as a contract killer in Hit Man. Image: Brian Roedel / Courtesy of Netflix

The title is stripped-down, like a sniper rifle ready to be concealed in a briefcase. But there are a lot of moving parts in the new movie from Richard Linklater, the veteran US indie filmmaker behind offbeat hits like School of Rock, Boyhood and the beloved romantic trilogy launched by Before Sunrise. Co-written by Linklater and his star Glen Powell, Hit Man is a literally killer comedy inspired by a 2001 magazine profile of a real guy from Houston, although it comes front-loaded with a ductile disclaimer: “Based on a somewhat true story.” 

When we first meet New Orleans college lecturer Gary (Powell), he is a faintly dorky dude with lank hair and glasses. He teaches psychology and philosophy to yawning students. His hobbies include birdwatching and electronics. He lives alone in the suburbs with two cats. It is certainly not the worst existence, but even Gary’s own voiceover narration seems aware that his life in the Big Easy lacks
much jazziness.

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Gary supplements his teaching income by maintaining surveillance equipment for the New Orleans police department. It is this side hustle which sets him on a surprising new trajectory. When a scuzzy undercover cop is suspended, his colleagues turn to Gary to take over in a sting. All he needs to do is pretend to be a hitman and elicit some damning testimony from the person who wants to hire him. 

How does a tech support guy pass as a stone-cold contract killer? Gary considers the many depictions of assassins-for-hire in pop culture and tries to “think hitman thoughts”. After a shaky start, it turns out he is a natural: smart and knowledgeable enough to sound like he can get away with murder, yet empathetic enough to put the “client” at ease. Arrests soar and suddenly Gary the dweeb is living an exciting double life.

Powell’s sculpted bod and jackknife grin were front and centre in Top Gun: Maverick and recent rom-com Anyone But You, so we know he can play sexy. But in Hit Man the Texan gets to show his range as well as his abs. 

His various killer personas include a gruff, bandana-sporting biker, a thickly-accented Eastern European heavy and just straight-up Christian Bale in American Psycho. Imagine Mr Benn if he only transformed into mugshot-ready murderers. His cop handlers are awed at Gary’s ability to convincingly embody badasses. “He’s like the Caucasian Idris,” one murmurs in admiration.

But before you can say “he shoots, he scores”, Gary encounters a client who derails his winning streak. Madison (Adria Arjona) is desperately looking for a way to escape her abusive ex-husband, and murder feels like the only option. As slick, confident triggerman ‘Ron’, Gary manages to steer Madison away from incriminating herself, partly because he intuits she is a good person in a bad situation, and partly because they are flirting like crazy.

This is when Hit Man shifts gear again into rom-com territory, as Gary embarks on a relationship with Madison as cool lone wolf Ron while fretting that she would never be interested if she knew his true identity. For her part, Arjona plays Madison as someone who seems excited but a little perturbed to have clicked with a professional killer.

Things get complicated when the couple swap passionate private hook-ups for public socialising, risking bumping into people they know. When something unfortunate happens to Madison’s ex and she becomes a suspect, the film mutates again. Have we read the dynamics all wrong? Just who is playing who here? And just when you think you have a handle on this new situation, Hit Man shoots off in another direction.

Funny, sexy, surprising… this is what we used to call “a good time at the movies”. So it feels a shame that Hit Man is getting such a brief cinema release before it debuts on Netflix. But perhaps it will become such a palpable streaming hit that it inspires more movies in the same grown-up vein. Powell has already been announced as the lead in a reimagining of Warren Beatty’s Heaven Can Wait. But the real killer move would be to reunite him and Arjona in a remake of steamy cat-and-mouse caper The Thomas Crown Affair. Hopefully some smart producer out there will pull the trigger.

Hit Man is in cinemas now and on Netflix from 7 June. Graeme Virtue is a film and TV critic.

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