Trying To Be Cool: On Hit Man & Playing the Character

Photo: Brian Roedel/Netflix

We can start with the charisma drought, the slow, lamentable death of the movie star. These are evergreen topics at the movies, or maybe they’re just ones that are comfortably unchallenging to indulge in. There’s a whiff of disappointment at the absence of a vaunted monoculture, a paean to a not-too-distant past of box office consensus where one face could guarantee a billion-dollar return and the money meant more than the money. It’s not a bad topic, frankly. For every undeniable mass hit, your Top Gun: Mavericks, your Inceptions, there are dozens of derivative, unworthy, no less expensive endeavors—sometimes with equally talented people involved—that fail to move or resonate. But these are manufactured successes as much as organic ones. 

Following its premiere at the Venice Film Festival, Richard Linklater’s newest project, a dark comedy about a regular guy pretending to be a hit man, was heralded as a potential theatrical sleeper hit—sexy, provocative, a much-needed shot of adrenaline and eroticism in a sterile, risk-averse cinematic environment. That Netflix then bought the distribution rights at the festival (Venice’s most expensive acquisition that year, at $20 million) struck Hit Man’s earliest and most ardent supporters as a killing blow. How many Netflix films that would have found respectable, if not popular, theatrical success ten years ago have foundered and disappeared into the algorithm? The traditional Netflix mea culpa followed, a limited theatrical run before the film’s release on the platform.

All this preamble is important because instances like these, where a festival darling is ferried to the masses on a current of well-intentioned but hyperbolic good will, especially one heralded as a throwback to classic genre romps, primes an audience for a certain experience that can buoy a film past its actual quality (forgive the extended metaphor). 

There’s no denying Hit Man’s obvious winning elements: a charismatic lead performance by Glen Powell (who co-wrote the screenplay with Linklater), matched and often exceeded by Adria Arjona’s electric performance as a woman in a desperate situation who’s more than she lets on. For Linklater, the film is a genre exercise, or really, an exercise in the idea of genre. Powell’s character Gary Johnson, who’s based on a real person, is a nerdy college professor who does part-time tech work for the New Orleans police department, most of it involving the operation of surveillance equipment used during sting operations. The film’s main inventive hook comes when Jasper (Austin Amelio), a dirty cop everyone would rather see fired—but most importantly, the undercover cipher playing a hitman in the meetings that Gary helps facilitate—is suspended for misconduct. In the field and with no one else to call on, Gary is tapped for the role. 

I say ‘an exercise in the idea of genre’ because Hit Man, as the film will repeatedly remind you, is more about perception and the malleability of identity than it is a true thriller. Guns are pulled but fired off screen. The threat of danger comes from stories convincingly told. When murder does happen, it’s via the unseen ingestion of poison. In other words, there are flirtations with genre elements, as there are flirtations between characters, but Hit Man is a film where such parallels are unconvincingly balanced. 

In the first scene where Gary, improvising as a roughened killer, goes to meet a potential client, Linklater plays up the sudden contrast in Gary’s behavior by eliding any illustration of preparation. Apart from a few nervous asides to his colleagues and some stage jitters, Gary walks into the empty restaurant where the sting takes place and executes a flawless performance. This is less than 10 minutes into the film, Linklater working in broad brush strokes to sketch out Gary’s normal life, aided by an intermittent voiceover that comes too late and too sporadically to matter much in a viewer’s parsing of the film. 

Immediately, Gary is hired as the unlikely new Jasper and he takes to his roleplaying with a commitment he rarely exhibits elsewhere. Tailoring his performance to each client, Gary dons wigs, fake scars and tattoos, makeup, and dentures in order to more fully inhabit multitudinous caricatures of the dangerous yet alluring criminal. This assumption as to which kind of hitman each person wants to see is never questioned or shown to be faulty. As Fran mentioned to me shortly after I watched Hit Man, the point and the pleasure seems to be about Powell and Linklater riffing, an extended inside joke about the absurdities of playing the part—and specifically of Powell playing the part, however outlandishly, however broadly. Of course, a wrinkle in the Master of Disguise montage is inevitable. 

First, and perhaps most distracting, is the shaky, nigh indefensible ethical foundation of Gary’s exploits. Hit Man is a film that tries to traffic in classic associations: the private dick, the man in over his head, the obsessive cop. The New Yorker’s Richard Brody compares Gary to James Stewart in Vertigo. These are powerful associations, not least because they supply a ready shorthand for motive and behavior. The problem comes at the behest of Powell’s and Linklater’s reluctance to pick a side. One way of thinking about Gary Johnson is as a salesman. What he sells is a story, not an experience, and the only memories his would-be clients get to keep are those of the fleeting moments before their arrest when they believed they were going to get away with murder. 

This way of framing Gary’s, and Powell’s, performance is more helpful as a piece of stage direction than narrative. Gary is basically a cop, a fact that wouldn’t matter much one way or the other if Powell and Linklater weren’t so apprehensive about its contemporary weight, constantly shifting between triumphant arrests and dour courtroom theatrics where prosecutors inveigh against the petty entrapment Gary is involved in. In an interview with The Film Stage, Linklater was asked about his recent documentary Hometown Prison, in which Linklater explores the carceral system in Huntsville, Texas. “No place darker than prison. I assure you,” Linklater says, before linking Hit Man’s comparatively lighter tone to Hometown Prison’s more incisive legal explorations. Such darkness is absent from Hit Man, even as Linklater claims it’s undergirding the film. In many ways, Hit Man is among Linklater’s least realized films, with little sense of place, redundant dialogue, and flat lighting. There are intimations of Gary’s dark passenger, sly send-ups of the kinds of supposedly hardened criminals that the police are sending away, and unsubtle exchanges about how adults can change their personalities by pantomiming the behaviors they’d like to embody. There are ideas here, but they aren’t explored.

Would that Gary Johnson as a character were actually evil, instead of whatever noncommittal complication he ends up as. It may very well be that Gary is a sociopath who, when he meets Madison Figueroa Masters (Arjona) under the guise of his suave hitman “Ron,” unlocks an erotically invigorating charge. In a conversation early in the film, Gary speaks with his ex-wife Alicia (Molly Bernard) about his failure to commit in their relationship. Alicia is the one who mentions the idea that change is possible through imitation. She also implies that Gary’s sexual performance was always hampered by his inability to truly connect with her. So when Madison appears, nervous yet striking, shy but pressing, Gary is unbalanced, transfixed, and hidden behind Ron. This obfuscation isn’t a hindrance; it frees Gary from himself, his id and ego fused, liberated, perfected. It’s notable that Ron is the closest to Glen Powell as we see him on the red carpet, if a little more direct. In that way, both textually and literally, Gary fulfills his dream of becoming someone he already is. Meanwhile, that flirtation with darkness, with the possibility that Gary’s enjoyment of his roleplaying might gesture at something revealing and unsavory, is merely that: a gesture. 

Madison is attempting to flee an abusive marriage where her finance bro husband Ray (Evan Holtzman) monitors her diet, her attire, and her whereabouts. But her initial meeting with Gary, where he ultimately dissuades her from hiring him to protect her from prison, begins as a consultation and ends as a meet-cute. At this point, an entirely different movie starts. Powell and Arjona’s chemistry burns up the screen, most palpably in the moments just before their characters have sex for the first time. Memes have already circulated featuring screencaps of Arjona in Hit Man with captions like “take me out back and shoot me,” a generation’s adoration filtered through commonplace exaggeration. The exaggeration makes sense. The chemistry Powell and Arjona share is almost completely driven by Arjona’s watchful performance, the way she communicates lust and impatience, while Powell’s inability to resist is merely punctuation. Linklater’s project at this stage of the film is admirable, two adults who don’t merely flirt or banter but fuck and play, licking wine off each other’s throats, donning costumes, making out on the dancefloor for all to see. 

Hit Man might have been better served as a vehicle for arousal, a more facile, titillating gloss on toxic romance à la Phantom Thread. As it stands, it’s more a vehicle for Powell. Arjona—who, even in a movie as risible as Morbius (2022), managed to leave an impression—is undeniable, a fact of her own screen presence more than anything to do with her character. Besides, Powell’s charisma isn’t fully developed yet. Powell’s own myth-making has already folded in the praise of Denzel Washington, chat show fodder that cements Powell’s nascent talent at the early stages of his career. 

More recently, it’s Tom Cruise who’s taken on the role of mentor. The pandemic’s production interferences make it easy to forget that Top Gun: Maverick began shooting in 2018 before it took over the box office in 2022. In that time, Powell’s screen appearances have been selective, but like Gary, he seems to be imitating his way into a certain type of easy confidence that doesn’t quite suit him. Particularly in the bar scene just before Madison and Gary go home together, Powell’s performance is astoundingly Cruise-ian. What he doesn’t realize is that Cruise’s charisma is necessarily entangled with his narcissism, which Powell, to his credit, seems uncomfortable to fully inhabit. And yet, it’s also what makes Cruise compelling, his ego unwittingly, sometimes jarringly revealing something essential and personal without necessarily providing answers. Cruise can play against type but he does so sparingly. His public faux pas and private sins continue to be outshined by his ability to read his audience. 

During Hit Man, I was often reminded of Chris Hemsworth’s turn in Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga. Like Gary, Hemsworth’s Dementus is a prosthetic-enhanced persona who, unlike Gary, struggles to project his idealized vision of himself. Like Gary, Hemsworth himself seems freed by the opportunity to hide beneath a darker mask, the strictures of Marvel likability supplanted by an innate charm that makes Dementus impossible to fully dislike. The key difference is that Hemsworth’s long life in the spotlight as a muscled leading man has also afforded him the chance to make a lot of bad movies, a vital feature of any worthwhile career. Much like Ryan Gosling post-The Nice Guys, Hemsworth’s knack for comedic timing and simple but effective characterization has, more or less, for better or worse, come at the behest of a desire to play roles that suit his interests. Sometimes, in the case of Furiosa, that means occupying the character actor’s slot, a place that, in Hit Man, is Austin Amelio’s to take and subsequently steal the show with. Powell is too conscious of his ascendancy and so is afraid to swing wide (the goofy voices and funny wigs he wears in Hit Man aren’t examples of range, but the kind of easy laughs one expects from an SNL skit). The cumulative result so far is crowd-pleasers that don’t have much to say, his charisma in service of almost nothing. That would be fine if Powell’s ambitions were more pedestrian—a hunky, smart guy who wants fame and sex appeal. But Hit Man serves as a fitting microcosm of the dilemma of this charismatic new face: all the right components there but in the wrong proportions, too many ideas and not enough wisdom to discern which are worth pursuing, the right time but the wrong place.