As part of our coverage of the 80th Venice International Film Festival, Lex Briscuso reviews Richard Linklater’s latest film, Hit Man. Follow along with more coverage in our Venice Film Festival archives.
“If the universe is not fixed, neither are you.”
The world is full of people who would love to be someone else. Not just actors who have the luxury of embodying those unlike themselves, but regular people just traversing the Earth hoping and wishing they could be more like this instead of like that. It’s normal, it’s universal, and it’s the core tenet that plagues central figure Gary Johnson in Hit Man, Richard Linklater’s hilarious and unpredictable twenty-third feature film.
Yet in this true story of a college professor turned undercover police informant posing as a hit man, Glen Powell’s Gary discovers that the aforementioned quote he espouses to his students couldn’t be more true. We all have the power to change, to “seize the identity you want for yourself,” as his character tells his class toward the film’s end. Gary does just that when he finds himself breaking the rules in order to help a woman flee from her abusive husband—and the result is a smart and strong comedy that surprises, delights, and makes you think about the nature of the self and what it means to shift and mold personal identity.
The thing about Linklater’s latest is that it feels so natural and lived in, starting out of the gate with an absolutely wonderful opening ten minutes that set the scene and establishes Powell’s impeccable sense of play and skill. It relies on a compelling and endlessly cinematic concept, the fact that hitmen (the kind you see in movies, and read about in books) don’t actually exist, but what does is undercover operatives pretending to be one so they can put you behind bars for even attempting the arrangement. Gary tells his students at one point, “The greatest enjoyment is to live dangerously”—and he lives that adage when his situation starts to deviate from the ordinary.
And then he finds he likes it, the idea of living dangerously and evolving the self. “I had a knack for being the person they needed me to be,” the character muses in voiceover as he cycles through different disguises for his trysts with would-be murderer recruiters. Sooner or later, the personas he inhabits on the job bleed into his real-life personality, particularly a suave, sexy hitman named Ron, who is just as attractive as you think he’s going to be. When Ron meets a gorgeous woman named Madison (Adria Arjona), the charming persona becomes his default in the burgeoning relationship that begins with her, you know, despite it being unprofessional. But do we care? Of course not. We’re rooting for him the entire time, particularly when he decides to attempt a connection with her.
Powell is an absolute chameleon, oscillating between so many hilarious and convincing costumes and accents as Gary settles into and begins to excel at his newfound craft. His physical changes as the film progresses—when he sheds Gary’s geeky glasses one day before teaching a lecture or when he returns to the police station in full Ron regalia after a pivotal conversation with Madison—is subtle and smart, working in service of the plot in a major way. This certainly isn’t Powell’s first film, but it might just be his big breakout, the one that makes the mainstream see exactly what he is capable of. He’s firsthand proof that human beings are malleable, and his performance will thrill you to your core. It’s the performance no one was expecting, but that everyone will be endlessly thankful for; He’s that good, making an absolute meal of every breath, every glance, every line, and every scene.
Arjona excels as the film’s leading lady and establishes herself as a major actress to watch. She’s funny, gorgeous, sensitive, and genuine; It really doesn’t get better than the work she’s doing when it comes to roles like this and her performance feels like one of the best comedic turns in recent memory, right alongside Powell’s. In fact, so much of the alchemical magic of how well this film works lies within their chemistry—and boy do they have a lot of it. Powell’s upcoming rom-com, the buzzworthy Anyone But You in which he stars opposite Sydney Sweeney, is going to have to work doubly as hard to come anywhere near Linklater’s gem, especially in the innate connection the leads share. If anything in the film proves this, it has to be the scene where they meet, which plays as one of the sweetest and cosmically life-changing meet-cutes potentially ever portrayed on camera.
Hit Man, for all its directorial successes in style and shots, has a fabulous script, one that intimately understands Gary’s metamorphosis as much as the concepts and impulses underneath it. One minute it’s heady and intelligent, the next hilarious, and the next a beautiful mix of both. During the film’s Venice Film Festival premiere, the crowd erupted in applause after Powell tells Arjona in a scene, “Chivalry may be dead, but I didn’t kill it”—and it was far from the only time the audience clapped for some of the film’s clever dialogue. The blissful combination of top-notch, seasoned directing and tuned-in writing makes this piece a near-automatic win, but the deal is sweetened by the fact that Powell himself collaborated on the script with the movie’s prolific auteur. Plus, the film is home to a few great twists and turns that are employed well and don’t feel stale like they have in other recent comedies.
The concept of reinventing the self is a cyclical human impulse, something we contemplate many times in our lives—but we may only do it once. With Linklater behind the camera and Powell and Arjona in front of it, Hit Man gives us a wonderfully wacky view of when the impulse to change your own life takes over and what it means to confront that inside as well as outside oneself. The film is a hilarious insight into a descent into the depths of one’s own desires for their life and the fleeting moment when the opportunity to take advantage of those desires is at your fingertips. Gary took that opportunity and came out with a story to tell. In the end, we all have a story about finding ourselves—and this one might just be the most exciting and effective of them all.