Richard Linklater’s Delightful “Hit Man” Features a Star Turn From Glen Powell

It's the most charming rom-com we'll see until...the next time Powell appears onscreen

September 16, 2023 1:26 pm
Glen Powell in "Hit Man"
Glen Powell in "Hit Man"
Aggregate Films

Perhaps more than any other filmmaker, Richard Linklater believes in the transformative power of talking, the potential inherent in engagement with another person to leave us changed for better and forever. In Slacker, a burglar’s candid chat with the anarchist academic he’s trying to rob sends him on a path toward the straight and narrow with newfound class-aware compassion. Dazed and Confused put forth the time-honored rituals of driving around and bullshitting as the first step into young adulthood, freeing high schoolers to bare their souls away from the hawklike view of their parents. Before Sunrise and its sequels reshaped a huge swath of American indie film in its own image, as a legion of lo-fi postgrads tried and failed to summon the same simple magic of two captivating people taking a stroll, trading bon mots and falling head over heels. For a director starting out, it’s a tempting tack to take, requiring more in terms of raw skill than technical resources.

The smoldering, wily, wild-but-true Hit Man returns Linklater to his loquacious take on romance, with a man using his gift of gab to shrug off himself. The real-life University of New Orleans philosophy professor Gary Johnson (Glen Powell, co-screenwriter and a true movie star of estimable, versatile powers) spends a lot of time — and a lot of the run time in a film that occasionally seems worried its subtext will be lost without outright statement — trying to put the nature of the self into words for bored 19-year-olds tuning out the dork with the bad haircut. (Even with Powell’s innate handsomeness toned down, this strains credibility.) If what we conceptualize as the “soul” is in actuality just a set of choices and habits that harden into personhood, then who’s to say that changing those patterns can’t fully alter who we are? Not incidentally, this is the supernatural thing about love; you meet someone who makes you feel confident and at-ease and the best version of yourself, and before long, you’ve spent enough time in that headspace that it becomes the new baseline. It’s not about losing yourself in another person, but finding yourself.

Teachers’ salaries being what they are, electronics hobbyist Gary pads his income with a side hustle helping out the cops with tech on sting operations. He and his fellow geeks in the surveillance van (Retta and Sanjay Rao, not unfunny but on a broader frequency than the rest of the cast) capture the audio, while the chewed-up-looking officer Jasper (Austin Ameilo) poses as a contract killer to incriminate those seeking out his services. After he’s sidelined by a suspension, it falls to Gary to step up and step in as the bait, a job for which he demonstrates a freakish instant adeptness. He’s shown to us initially as an empty vessel, eating at a small kitchen table with no company other than his cats Id and Ego, and so it follows that he’s readily filled with someone else. He possesses a Zelig-like knack for molding himself to fit the mark, not just in manner but appearance; around a skeet-shooting good ol’ boy, Gary dons a pair of hick dentures and meets him on his coarse level. To lower his targets’ defenses, he remakes himself as whatever they need, which gets complicated upon meeting with a woman who only needs saving.

In a change of pace from the steady parade of moneygrubbers and vengeful ex-spouses — their arrests interspersed through the film like a series of self-contained comedy skits — the fetching Maddy (Adria Arjona) comes to the man she believes to be named Ron out of self-preservation. She can’t live with her abusive husband anymore, but Gary-Ron can see that she’d be better off with a new lease on life than a murder hanging over her, so he morphs into the grounding male presence she’s been missing and talks her out of it in the first of several immaculately crafted exchanges they’ll share. As Ron, Gary rises to the occasion of their flirtation, his hair suddenly perfect and his eyes somehow sharper; in essence, he becomes Glen Powell, though the actor only turns on the charm until he flips back into a more rubbery comic mode not so far removed from “yassified Jim Carrey” once things start going pear-shaped.

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As “Ron” and Maddy cozy up to one another over burgers (another addition to the Ted’s Frostop Cinematic Universe of New Orleans-shot productions) and scaldingly hot sex, he dissolves the boundaries between the dreamboat aspirations he roleplays around her and his everyday doings apart from her. The film has fun riffing on the theme of erotic make-believe, implicitly handcuffing one scene of hot-stewardess foreplay to a later ruse enacted for a surveillance microphone. Capped with a roaring round of applause at the Toronto International Film Festival’s premiere, that showstopper doesn’t just bring the heat between Powell and Arjona to a high rolling boil, but synthesizes the layers of performance and sincerity into crowd-pleasing farce. Not since School of Rock has Linklater worked the major-chord pleasures of the Hollywood picture like this, delivering a devious romcom of such quality we may not see until [checks notes] the next time Glen Powell appears onscreen, alongside Sydney Sweeney in this December’s Anyone But You.

In adapting a 2001 article from Texas Monthly, Linklater makes room to revisit his own theories about relationships, and the difficulty of bringing one that feels like a vacation back home to settle down. Before Sunrise introduced Jesse and Celine as strangers compatible on the molecular level, and Before Midnight challenged them to maintain that attraction as they enter middle age, with its unsexy demands of work and family. In Hit Man, Gary and Maddy tentatively explore whether the spark they felt — not traveling in Europe, but certainly on leave from their lives — could continue to burn as people rather than characters. The final scene makes the heartening assertion that yes, they can and did, which clears way for the equally Linklaterian tendency to blow past the ethical wickets attendant to true crime. Just as Bernie played it awfully chummy with a guy who murdered a woman for being an annoying old crone, Hit Man feels no compunction about declaring someone who wound up with a rap sheet of his own the chillest dude ever.

Though with Powell onscreen, that’s hard to contest. The limp noodle introduced in the first act may be a tough sell coming from him, but once he locks into the chameleonic charisma that throws Gary off his humdrum course into self-determination, it’s impossible to look away. Part of what makes his hot-mic put-on with Maddy so sweltering is the control that Powell exerts over the situation, first promising her that he’s got her best interests at heart and imploring her to trust him, the same intimate compact that begins all BDSM. The masculine command he flexed in Top Gun: Maverick and frat-boy slyness of Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!! have a slightly different tenor here, ripened by an adult understanding of ethical and interpersonal responsibility. He won’t make you regret trusting him. He’s got you.

That’s the same force field of reassurance that elevates a mere actor into a screen idol of the first order, and a role steeped in both Old Hollywood allure and modern indie quirk required nothing less. Attuned to Linklater’s goal of mass appeal and his impulse to idiosyncrasy, Powell makes for a felicitous muse, evident in cinematography with a bromantic air of physical admiration. And even with his good looks equal parts ubermensch and human golden retriever (honestly, I don’t see the capybara comparison, though it speaks to my same point), he illustrates the deeper principle underlying all games of attraction: there’s nothing more alluring than being comfortable in one’s own skin. Sometimes, it just takes a few alterations before it fits right.

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