‘Hit Man’ Gives Glen Powell His Movie Star Breakthrough

'Maverick' co-star comes into his own in Richard Linklater's sly comic caper

Richard Linklater’s “Hit Man” is a delightful new comedy that he not only directed but also co-wrote and co-produced with his leading man, Glen Powell.

For Linklater, this is not in the same league as his masterpieces but another potent and surprising sleeper, similar to 2011’s “Bernie.”

Hit Man | Official Trailer | Netflix

For Powell, however, this is an arrival; Powell’s dazzling performance is not only the best thing about this consistently funny quasi-true story, but it also surpasses his current movie star rising/sex symbol status.

Powell has a range, playfulness and vulnerability that is startling. I enjoyed his prior work but nothing he’s done before is on this level of accomplishment.

Based on an article by Skip Hollandsworth, “Hit Man” stars Powell as Gary Johnson, a philosophy professor who, in his spare time, assists the local police department with their undercover stakeouts. Johnson aids a team of cops who are arresting suspects who believe they’re hiring the services of a professional killer.

Johnson is suddenly thrust out of the background and put front and center, pretending to be a hitman. Wearing a wire and taking on a different persona, Johnson allows those who summoned him to state their case. It turns out, to everyone’s amazement, that Johnson is very good at this and has a gift for becoming whoever he needs to be for his job.

When Johnson, taking on his strongest persona yet, intentionally botches the arrest of an abused wife (Adria Arjona), it is obvious to him and us that this is a turning point. The sequence shows where real moral compromise comes into his performances as moral-free contract killers.

Glen Powell and Adria Arjona Break Down Their Hit Man Partnership | Netflix

The cleverly packaged, dialogue-driven screenplay matches the inventive and lively turn by Powell. Early on, I realized I was mesmerized by a two-hander scene with just two characters deep in conversation.

“Hit Man” is one of the few quotable movies of 2024. That should come as no surprise since Linklater also directed the “Before” trilogy (1995-2013) and other superb films (like “Waking Life” and “A Scanner Darkly”) where the chatter pulls us in as much as the characters do.

It’s to Linklater and Powell’s credit that the scenes in the police station, which could just be exposition fodder, are among the funniest and most satisfying.

I loved how unpredictable the third act is, which tightens the suspense, though Linklater never lets this get too dark. I mean this as a compliment: as a laid-back comedy about crime and having to play the right role, this reminded me of the tone and laugh ratio of “My Cousin Vinny” (1992).

As Oscar worthy as Powell and the screenplay is, I wish the concluding scenes weren’t so pat. There had to be a less mainstream, everything-fits-together way of ending this. Like the last scene in Ridley Scott’s fantastic “Matchstick Men” (2003), Linklater and Powell worried too much about giving the audience what it wants, instead of addressing the intriguingly knotty issues the story is constantly exploring.

“Hit Man” addresses the “role” we play in daily life, and how it doesn’t always line up with the persona we sometimes take on when we’re cornered. It says a lot about human behavior, but this is mostly about actors and what it means to give a persuasive performance.

We see Johnson playing the Hit Man, but also being “himself” at his other job and alone at home. Which is the real Gary Johnson? The movie never tells us, though a funny postscript at the top of the end credits informs us just how much of the story is actually true.

Top Gun Maverick Beach Scene 4K IMAX

Powell stood out in “Top Gun: Maverick” (which is a lot harder to do than it sounds), helped revitalize rom-coms in “Anyone But You” and has some tornado wrastlin’ in his near future with “Twisters.”

That’s fine, but don’t miss the opportunity to see him give one of the standout performances of 2024.

“Hit Man” made a splash on the film festival circuit last year and is now on Netflix. Linklater has made punchier, more impactful works but this is a real discovery.

Three Stars


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