A peak-performance engine running wholly on charisma, Richard Linklater’s “Hit Man” revives and revitalizes a genre in awfully short supply. Written by Linklater and star Glen Powell, “Hit Man” is a deliriously entertaining star vehicle, a throwback to the low-concept, high-reward studio crowd-pleasers built around a comic persona and designed to showcase a gifted performer’s range. Among his many other talents, Linklater has now proven himself to be a master of this form, delivering an uproarious film that equals and (maybe surpasses) his previous high with 2003’s “School of Rock.”
But don’t take my word for it: Just ask any one of the 1400 festival-goers who filled Venice’s Palazzo del Cinema with howls of laughter, who offered impromptu mid-film applause and adulation at several points, and who stumbled out of the film’s world premiere nearly drunk on joy. Put simply, “Hit Man” absolutely kills.
Powell begins the film as Gary Johnson, a goodhearted goof who teaches psychology at the University of New Orleans and moonlights as a freelance tech head for the N.O.P.D. (The character is, in fact, based on a real man who passed away last year and to whom the film is dedicated). Gary is sharp as a tack and dull as a doorknob, the model milquetoast whose sartorial style and personal affect seem pulled from Weird Al’s “White and Nerdy.” And he’s perfectly content – if a little bit lonely – living his quiet life pulling apart the human psyche for his students and piecing together technological doodads for the fuzz.
Indeed, the N.O.P.D’s Hitman unit makes particular use of Gary’s surveillance devices. What’s that? Never heard of such a unit? Well, that’s just how they want it, playing the silver screen’s promise of a thriving black market for “cleaners” against the more prosaic truth that the man accepting the payment for the deed is probably wearing a wire and is almost certainly trying to get you to self-incriminate.
Soon enough, Gary is called to the big-league when the normal undercover operative becomes indisposed. Wouldn’t you know it, but our boy’s a natural born killer, riffing with the target, free-associating gruesome details and building up a hard-ass persona from scratch. Soon enough, Gary’s called back for a number of repeat performances. Given the character’s constant swings from mild-mannered academic to All-American Badass, the film often plays like a low-stakes, screwball version of “Breaking Bad,” replacing menace with madcap comic invention.
Here the film, filmmakers, actors, audience and characters all align: We love to see Gary transform, delighting in the new personas he devises for each sting, laughing as his reedy voice drops an octave and anticipating what outlandish disguise he might assume for the next hit. Ever the psychologist (and ever the nerd) Gary does his homework before each sting, coming up with a new guise tailored to the mark’s psychological profile and, with it, a new name.
Walking into a sting as the cocksure Ron, our hero meets Madison (Adria Arjona, in what by any rights should be a star-making turn). Crushed and stifled by an abusive marriage, Madison is willing to pay the ultimate price for her freedom (or, more to the point, to make her awful husband pay), but Gary/Ron relents, stopping his games of entrapment before she incriminates herself. It helps that Madison can riff – going toe-to-toe with “Ron” in a bout of mutual sussing-out that fluidly segues into flirtation – and it’s clear they share a spark. If “Hit Man” is almost, but not quite, a romantic comedy, Powell and Arjona share enough screen-chemistry to power one hundred more films.
Soon enough, Madison and “Ron” become an item, with the girl turned on by a partner who holds life in his hands, and the boy, well, turned on by seeing that self reflected in his eager partner’s eyes. So he stays as Ron, at least when he’s with her, and once more we delight in this Jerry Lewis set-up. The salad days can only last so long, especially when Madison’s pugnacious ex is still in the picture, and not when Madison buys into her gruff beau’s I’m A Killer spiel.
We’ll leave things there at risk of spilling any further, though in so many ways, “Hit Man” is not a film that can be spoiled. Its many pleasures are found in its performances, in the sizzling screen chemistry between Powell and Arjona, and in the cut-glass comic timing of supporting actors Retta and Sanjay Rao, who play Gary’s police-sting support staff and who could be considered comedic relief if only the damned film wasn’t so damn funny all the way through. That humor comes from reactions and inflections, and also – as much great comedy does – from a real degree of tension.
At the end of the day, Gary and crew set-up long games of entrapment, using their wiles to pull criminal admissions from a confused lot dazzled by the contract killer promise of the movies and bamboozled by a nutty professor who happens to be one hell of an agent provocateur. Rather than resolving or papering over that tension, Linklater and Powell burrow in, painting in shades of grey, and creating a gee-whiz, All-American nice guy who becomes an anti-hero despite his best intentions.