Hit Man (2024)

Sundance Film Review: Hit Man

Film Reviews

Sundance Film Review: Hit Man
Director: Richard Linklater

Barnstorm Productions and Aggregate Films
Premiere: 01.20

In a feature film career that started 33 years ago with Slacker, Richard Linklater has given us a variety of films that have been alternately thoughtful, nostalgic, provocative, surreal and groundbreaking. Hit Man stands out as the most purely and unabashedly entertaining film he’s made since his 2003 classic School of Rock.

Hit Man follows Gary Johnson (Glen Powell, Top Gun: Maverick), a mild-mannered professor of psychology and philosophy at the University of New Orleans. Gary is something of a nebbish—albeit a nebbish with the body of a full-time Pilates instructor—who lives alone with his two cats after his wife left him due to a lack of passion in the relationship. An electronics expert, Gary spends his free time volunteering with the NOPD, helping with wiretaps on sting operations. Gary sits in the van while Jasper (Austin Amelio, Everybody Wants Some!), an undercover officer, poses as a hit man so that the two can get a potential client on record soliciting a murder for hire. When Jasper is abruptly suspended after being charged with police brutality, Gary is sent into the lion’s den as a last minute substitute.

To everyone’s surprise, Gary is a natural. In fact, when given the opportunity to step outside of his own insecurities, Gary comes across as a smoldering badass and is soon doing regular busts. Things couldn’t be going more smoothly until Gary meets Madison (Adria Arjona, Andor, Good Omens), a desperate woman who is looking for someone to kill her domineering husband. Gary—in character as Ron, the suave and debonair hit man with a heart of gold—can’t bring himself to arrest her, and talks her into leaving her husband instead. When Gary/Ron runs into Madison a few weeks later, they begin a romantic relationship that, at best, runs the risk of ruining Gary’s cover, and at worst could result in dangerous consequences.

Linklater and Powell, who wrote the screenplay together, were inspired by a Texas Monthly article about Gary Johnson, a real-life professor in Texas who did indeed work undercover with the police as a mock hit man, though the details of the film’s plot are purely fictional. Hit Man is a fast-moving, goofy and thoroughly irresistible comedy that is filled with humor, romance and plenty of twists and turns. For most of the way through, it’s difficult to find fault in this light and fanciful piece of escapist entertainment. In the final third, the twists do start to pile up and threaten to unravel, with Linklater and Powell writing themselves into a bit of a corner. Eventually they find a way out of it, though in doing so, they force the characters to make a choice that crosses the line from morally questionable into just plain wrong. While the film is so much fun that you may find yourself going with it in the moment, it leaves a rather unfortunate aftertaste.

Powell is dynamite in the lead role, showcasing a whole new side of himself as an actor, and unless Hit Man utterly fails to find an audience in its Netflix release this summer, it promises to jump him into full-time leading man status. As Gary analyzes each potential client and carefully tailors the character of their ideal hit man to what he thinks will be most convincing to them, Powell gets to play a wide variety of zany characters that showcases his heretofore untapped range. Arjona is appealing and has great chemistry with Powell, and the supporting ensemble is just as great as you would expect from a Linklater film.

If you can tell yourself “it’s only a movie” and take the final section with a grain of salt, Hit Man is likely to be two of the most enjoyable hours you’ll spend at the movies this year. It’s a delightfully silly romp that lets you live vicariously through the performances of the lead actor and the characters he’s portraying, and as they are clearly having the time of their life, that feeling is quite infectious. –Patrick Gibbs

Read more of SLUG‘s comprehensive coverage of the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.