Call Up Hit Man For a Dose of Reliably Transfixing Entertainment

"Hit Man" Photo Call
"Hit Man" Photo Call / Hubert Vestil/GettyImages

Director Richard Linklater's legacy is defined by his most intimate accomplishments. Works like Boyhood and the Before trilogy are masterful examples of subdued dialogue-driven cinema. Within these films, Linklater wrings quietly compelling drama out of ordinary conversations. He subverts the sensationalist tendencies of cinema by suggesting that raw existence can also occupy the big screen. A married couple walking around Greece or a young boy growing up in Texas are just as worthy of being in cinema as anything else. Following in the footsteps of other naturalistic filmmakers like Roberto Rossellini and Agnes Varda, Linklater's most down-to-earth features are incredible creations.

What makes Linklater extra impressive as an artist, though, is that’s not the only mold he can operate in. The man responsible for Before Midnight can also knock out good old-fashioned crowdpleaser entertainment. Titles like School of Rock and Bernie are just thoroughly enjoyable comedies. When you sit down to watch a Linklater movie, you might end up pondering what small moments from your own life quietly molded your psyche. Patricia Arquette just sitting at a dining room table contemplating how fast life goes will leave you haunted for days. Other times, you may get a lot of belly laughs and a well-paced good time. Linklater’s latest work, Hit Man, falls into the latter category nicely. There are certainly some larger themes at play here regarding identity. However, Hit Man is also just a breezy good time starring attractive people.

Continuing Linklater's fascination with crime stories rooted in the South and some version of reality (see also: Bernie and The Newton Boys), Hit Man chronicles the exploits of college professor Gary Johnson (Glen Powell). This easygoing fellow was perfectly content to spend his days watering his plants, feeding his cats, and teaching his students. However, Johnson's life changes when he's asked to pose as a hitman in a sting operation for the New Orleans Police Department. Turns out, this mild-mannered guy has a knack for posing as brutal killers.

While working to capture folks eager to turn their loved ones into corpses, Johnson encounters Maddy Masters (Adria Arjona). A nice lady looking for an out of a toxic relationship, Johnson finds himself smitten. Their dynamic doesn’t just end with an initial rendezvous at a diner. Still masquerading as a killer, Johnson begins a romantic bond with Masters. It’s a glorious bond. It’s also built on lies that can’t stay dormant forever.

For months now, the hype surrounding Hit Man has been about Glen Powell’s lead performance. Already on the radar of everybody as “the next hot thing” thanks to Set It Up, Top Gun: Maverick, and Anyone But You, Powell is indeed a riot in Hit Man. The guy effortlessly exudes an everyman charm in depicting his character’s day-to-day life. He doesn’t feel like a Hollywood beefcake masquerading as a “normal person”. Powell lends such empathy to depictions of Johnson teaching or taking care of his cats. The meekest sides of Johnson aren’t caricatured. There’s enough believability here to make you buy Powell as an ordinary guy.

This performer's also very skilled at comedy, a trait not every modern leading man can handle. Just look at how Powell portrays Johnson’s assorted over-the-top hitman personas. These goofball identities are imbued with enough restraint to make them extra humorous. A Russian mobster, for instance, is handled with gritted teeth and minimal dialogue. Another later persona is outfitted with an orange wig and suit like he’s a LazyTown villain. Powell perfectly juxtaposes such a silly colorful costume with the rigid ominous dialogue style of Sam Spruell's Ole Munch from the fifth season of Fargo. Mugging for the camera can get old. Executing outlandishness with lived-in realism, meanwhile, can sustain itself for a good long while.

While Glen Powell’s a hoot in Hit Man, it takes two to tango in a romantic comedy like this. In an age of Passengers or The Idea of You, viewers are well aware that two famous attractive people aren’t destined to have captivating chemistry with each other. In a happy twist, Hit Man’s leading lady Adria Arjona has a dynamite rapport with Powell. She isn’t just a notable performer when she’s playing off Hit Man’s lead, though. In Hit Man, Arjona effortlessly channels Jean Arthur in her comedy and instantly endearing spirit. Arthur captured one’s total investment just in her fleeting appearance in the title cards of The Devil and Miss Jones. Similarly, Arjona has viewers wrapped up in the world of Maddy Masters right from the start.

Just Arjona’s body language in her first scene perfectly captures the daily hell Masters is trapped in. This woman's abusive relationship isn't her only defining quality. However, Arjona uses subtle details in her gait or her head's position to suggest why Masters has resorted to an assassin. Those subtle bits of physicality get viewers onboard with Arjona’s performance. Much like Jean Arthur, though, Arjona is also just a lot of fun to watch in comedy and romantic scenarios. Arjona’s playful sensuality in her most intimate scenes with Powell is utterly transfixing. Meanwhile, the funniest scenes of Hit Man, particularly a climactic sequence heavily involving the Notes app, get a lot of mileage out of Arjona’s skills as a comic performer. Many viewers will come to Hit Man to see more of Glen Powell. They’ll undoubtedly leave talking about how Adria Arjona is also a new movie star.

You don’t really need a lot more than entertaining actors like Powell and Arjona to make a delightful movie. Linklater wisely keeps the scope of Hit Mansmall so that we never lose sight of the central relationship. Too many modern comedies opt for big finales involving hordes of mobsters and gunfire. Hit Man, wisely, doesn’t sacrifice its greatest qualities in the name of increased scale. Granted, some of Hit Man’s more streamlined traits are more serviceable than outstanding. Early bits of languid cinematography could’ve used extra jolts of personality. Ditto the score by Graham Reynolds, which doesn’t have as many idiosyncratic qualities as the script and lead performances.

However, Hit Man is primarily a delightful success. It's a perfect feature to watch with a crowd (ironic, then, that it’s doomed for a Netflix bow). Like with School of Rock, Linklater knows how to get to the cathartic beats audiences crave without coming off as pandering in the process. It doesn’t hurt that the production is bursting with extra exciting flourishes that make a world of difference. Juliana Hoffpauir's costume design, for one, is a treat. Not only does she conjure up delightful outfits for Johnson to don in his hitman personas, but she also gives Masters such striking yet naturalistic attire. A denim top with rainbow heart buttons is especially dripping with personality!

Those kinds of fun touches, not to mention two unforgettable lead performances, make Hit Man a delight. In other words, Richard Linklater’s return to crowd-pleaser mode is absolutely killer.

Hit Man is now playing in select theaters and will arrive on Netflix on June 7.