The art of the crowd pleaser is a delicate craft. Trying to make something that will connect with audiences on a major scale while also maintaining artistic integrity, on a good day, might as well be near impossible. So it wasn’t difficult to look upon the rave festival reviews for Hit Man, the latest from legendary filmmaker Richard Linklater (Dazed & Confused, School of Rock, Boyhood) with intense skepticism. Now that I’ve spent the entire 105 minute runtime of the film’s premiere at Sundance 2024 laughing, swooning, and biting my nails, I can safely say if anything Hit Man has been undersold.
This film marks the fourth collaboration between Linklater and star Glen Powell (Top Gun: Maverick). Their collaboration began when Powell was a kid in Fast Food Nation, blossomed into a breakout role in Everybody Wants Some!!, and segueing into a role in 2022’s Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood. The fourth time, however, is extra special, as it features Powell as star and co-screenwriter, along with Linklater. Hit Man feels like the ideal alchemy between two gifted people, a funny, smart, sexy, all-around rollicking good time.
Powell and Linklater’s script for Hit Man is a straight shooter
The title for Hit Man might lead viewers to believe that it’s an assassin film, a la The Killer. It’s not. Hit Man instead follows the (mostly) true story of one Gary Johnson (Glen Powell), a New Orleans school teacher who helps the police with tech support on sting operations.
When a coworker (Austin Amelio) gets put on suspension, Johnson is asked to step into one of the most important gigs: posing as a hitman to trick “customers” into admitting intent to have someone murdered. He makes a killing (no pun intended) at this job, until a meeting with a prospective client (Adria Arjona) leaves him smitten. She ultimately fails to incriminate herself, leaving the door wide open for Gary to pursue her. The problem? He has to keep up the facade of the hitman she fell in love with.
Glen Powell and Richard Linklater’s script for Hit Man is a barn burner. The early sections of the movie have a ton of fun with the very unusual concept, allowing the character of Gary Johnson ample opportunity to show off his very particular set of skills.
Early on, it plays like a wild “stranger than fiction” tale that only heats up with the introduction of Arjona’s Maddy Masters. From that point onwards, it’s a steamy romance bolstered by its forbidden nature. Moreover, Hit Man is not content to just be two things, throwing in complications that put the central couple in legal and physical danger. From that point onwards, Hit Man’s script paves the way for a movie that keeps you on the edge of your seat, judging just where it might go next.
Glenn Powell and Adria Arjona make movie magic
No doubt about it, Glen Powell is a bona fide leading man. He portrays Gary Johnson as a quiet, affable enough guy, content to live in his own rich inner world. Then Powell pulls a sort of magic trick. Through his work as a fake assassin, Johnson, and Powell by proxy, gets to play a variety of different characters, or varieties of hitman. These range from the ridiculous British accented Bond villain type, to the more realistic suave, discreet character he plays that attracts Maddy. Although, to be more accurate, it brings something out of Gary himself; an excitement, becoming the person he almost wishes he can be. And almost all of this is communicated through Powell’s performance.
In her previous roles in Morbius and Andor, I’ll admit I underestimated Adria Arjona. Hit Man may as well be her official coming out as a future marquee star. Maddy is the perfect femme fatale. Alluring, hiding her true capability under the surface.
The chemistry Maddy and Gary have is as big as the silver screen itself. The constant shifting of the nature of their dynamic, with a magnetic attraction that never leaves, is Hit Man’s secret sauce. A sequence where the two communicate using notes app on the telephone may as well be the true modern realization of a screwball comedy, à la His Girl Friday.
That’s not to say the supporting cast doesn’t put in the work. Retta and Sanjay Rao are plenty of fun in their roles as fellow sting officers. Meanwhile, Austin Amelio walks the line between funny sad sack and utterly menacing in his own way. The more Hit Man rockets towards its conclusion, the bigger his role gets, and he dominates a good portion of some of the movie’s standout moments.
With Hit Man, the rom-com resurrection is here
All in all, though, Hit Man represents a swerve back to mass appeal filmmaking for Richard Linklater. He hasn’t been in this form, tapping into what makes audiences go nuts, since School of Rock. The execution isn’t flashy. Cinematographer Shane F. Kelly shoots things in a straightforward manner, the score by Graham Reynolds mostly just hits its marks. What matters is that Hit Man, at its core, is full of charming people in the middle of a fun story. What more could audiences want?
Next to nothing. Hit Man is a great time at the movies. The creative partnership between Richard Linklater and Glen Powell hits its zenith in a motion picture that could single-handedly bring the rom-com back to its former heights. Due to the success of Anyone But You and No Hard Feelings, audiences are clearly hungry for that next big crowd pleaser. They just need the right person to pull the trigger. Gary Johnson is the right fake hitman for the job.
Hit Man releases on Netflix in select countries on June 7, 2024 with a limited release in theaters before that. Are you planning to watch this movie? Let us know on social media @mycosmiccircus or in The Cosmic Circus Discord. Keep an eye out for more coverage from Sundance Film Festival 2024 coming to The Cosmic Circus soon!