Capsule Review: Hit Man (2024) – Glen Powell and Adria Arjona Excel in this Otherwise Plodding, Genre-Bending Comedy

The last time Richard Linklater directed a movie resulted in a tedious misfire of a rotoscoping animation Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood. He returns with Hit Man, an otherwise generic-sounding title that turns out to be more to this than meets the eye. Linklater, who also co-wrote the screenplay with star Glen Powell, loosely based on the true story of Gary Johnson from the 2001 Texas Monthly magazine article by Skip Hollandsworth.

Now, who is Gary Johnson? He’s a fiftysomething mild-mannered psychological professor and lives alone with his two cats. Johnson also works for the Houston Police Department impersonating a “hit man” and has helped the local authorities successfully make over 60 arrests. He died in 2022 right before the filming took place for Hit Man.

Gary Johnson’s fascinating story certainly screams for a movie adaptation and newly-minted star Glen Powell, who already enjoyed stardom in Top Gun: Maverick and Anyone But You, fits the role perfectly like a glove. He’s an ordinary-looking, bespectacled philosophy professor at the University of New Orleans. When he’s not lecturing, he would moonlight as a fake hitman for the New Orleans police department.

But it doesn’t start that way at first since his job is supposed to be handling their audio surveillance equipment due to his technical expertise. It all changes during one of the sting operations when the department’s own undercover “hitman” Jasper (Austin Amelio) ends up being suspended from duty for misconduct. The police need someone else to step in and Gary reluctantly agrees. This leads to one of the funniest moments of the movie: A scene where Johnson tries his best to keep his cool and improvises as he goes as a hitman while dealing with his client.

The first 30 minutes play out like an oddball comedy as we see Johnson successfully playing different types of hitmen, getting his clients to confess their crimes and have them arrested before the murders take place. Powell’s comedic timing, coupled with his undeniably charming personality hits all the right notes.

Linklater then shifts the tone to a mix of rom-com and neo-noir, complete with a femme fatale played by Adria Arjona. She co-stars as Madison, who hires “Ron” and it turns out to be Johnson working undercover as a hitman. She wants him to get rid of her abusive husband but instead of having her arrested just like others, he does the unthinkable: saving Madison from jail time by giving her advice. From the first time they met, there was an immediate sense of chemistry between them. Arjona’s deceptive role as Madison is spot-on and her subsequent relationship with Johnson sizzles with a few steamy and even kinky sex moments.

I admire Linklater’s multiple tonal shifts alternating one after another with Powell and Arjona’s solid pairing in the centre. But the movie does feel like a slog at times while suffering from erratic pacing. Not every scene works in Linklater’s favour with some of the jokes tend to fall flat. The ending is a mixed bag with the initially promising subversive third act, only to be undermined by a strangely happy coda that feels somewhat out of place.

Hit Man is currently streaming on Netflix.