HIT MAN | USA | 2023 | 113m | English
Directed By: Richard Linklater
Gary Johnson (Glen Powell) is a philosophy professor by day, lecturing his students on theories of morality. In his downtime he works with the police in surveillance vans as a tech-savvy staff investigator during undercover sting operations. When the temperamental officer who normally plays the role of hitman is placed on leave for misconduct, milquetoast Gary is asked to step in because he vaguely resembles the ousted officer. To everyone’s surprise, Gary thrives impersonating the fabricated killers.
One day, Gary, in character as Ron, the charismatic lone-wolf hitman, meets would-be client Madison (Adria Arjona), who is desperate to get out of her abusive marriage. Sparks fly. Soon, he reaches out to Madison outside of their arrangement to start a decidedly non-professional but steamy fling. But as Gary attempts to keep his various personas separate, his lies accumulate and someone actually ends up dead. He finds himself in the middle of a real crime with all evidence leading back to him.
TIFF REVIEW BY: Darren Zakus
RATING 5 out of 5
Hit Man is without a question one of the most entertaining films of the year thanks to a well crafted, smart and hilarious screenplay, and a brilliant charismatic lead performance from Glen Powell!
Richard Linklater first cast Glen Powell in a minor role in Fast Food Nation back in 2006, which was one of Powell’s first film roles. Almost a decade later, Linklater rediscovered Powell’s talent when he auditioned for Everybody Wants Some!!, which ended up being a major breakout performance for Powell, helping to launch his career as one of the most talented young actors in the business. This led to Powell voicing a character for Linklater in Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood as a favour, thus continuing their creative collaborations. But their fourth film and latest collaboration together sees Linklater and Powell evolving past the director actor relationship, this time co-writing the screenplay together in addition to Linklater directing, and Powell starring in the main role. The result is without question Linklater's best films in years, and my personal favourite of his, and a sensational performance from Powell that guarantees his Hollywood A-lister status.
Gary Johnson is a psychology professor by day, but acts as a consultant for the Houston police department, helping them capture individuals attempting to hire a hitman. But when the undercover cop who Gary is partnered with is suspended from duty, Gary is forced to play the role of the hitman, getting unknowing individuals to confess that they want to murder someone so the police can swoop in and arrest them. While nervous, Gary’s psychology background gives him an unmatched set of talents to read and convince his targets to hire him. But when Gary meets the beautiful Madison, he breaks protocol and convinces her to not hire him to kill her soon to be ex-husband. Though, when Madison reaches out to Gary after the fact to thank him, Gary cannot resist and responds, striking up an illicit affair with Madison while under the identity of Ron, the hitman Gary used while meeting her, leading to unforeseeable consequences for the both of them.
Inspired by the real-life story of Gary Johnson, Linklater and Powell have used Johnson’s career as a starting point for the film. The first act is largely grounded in truth as they introduce the audience to what the real Johnson did for the Houston police. But once Gary meets Madison and lets her go (which Johnson did let a woman go in real life), the film moves into fiction with the illicit affair between Gary and Madison, becoming the funniest and steamiest film of the year. The screenplay is full of razor sharp witty dialogue that helps create an infectious romance between Gary and Madison and an enormous number of comedic moments that generated some of the loudest laughter at the Toronto International Film Festival this year. Though, over the course of the second act, Linklater and Powell sow the seeds of chaos, resulting in a thrilling third as the consequences of Gary’s actions catch up with him, resulting in one of the best scenes of the entire year as Gary tries to evade detection by his own team that he is having an affair with Madison. It’s a brilliant mix of film noir, screwball comedy, romance and erotic thriller that is a rich character driven story, playing with themes of identity and personality, and creating an absolute crowd pleaser that is destined to be a major hit.
As great as the screenplay and story of Hit Man are, the film is nothing without Powell in the lead role of Gary. For years, Powell has been delivering memorable supporting performances or lead performances in smaller films, but his performance in this film is the role that is going to make him a true movie star. From start to finish, Powell oozes charisma and charm as Gary, acting as a chameleon as he portrays all of the assumed identities Gary used to capture his targets, showcasing an incredible comedic talent and leading man presence that is soon to be in the highest of demand in Hollywood. There is a duality to Ron and Gary, with Ron being confident, brash and masculine, while Gary is sensitive, careful and intelligent, and Powell captures both identities perfectly and switches between in an instant of a second, while blurring the lines between the two as Gary begins to lose himself in Ron as the film progresses. In every sense of the word, it is an electrifying performance that is without question one of the best of the year that will make Powell a household name.
With such a magnetic performance from Powell, the actress portraying Madison needs to be able to match his incredible talents, and Adria Arjona does that and more. In what is destined to be her breakout performance, Arjona finds a fiery and playful passion in Madison, underlying her performance with a sweetness that ensures that both Gary and the audience will fall in love with her. But given that Madison was willing to hire a hitman to kill her husband, there is a femme fatale sense of danger to her that is intriguing and creates warning bells, though they are bells that both Gary and the audience will ignore because they are enamored with Arjona’s performance.
As a romantic pairing, Powell and Arjona have the best romantic chemistry of the year, and quite frankly one of the best of this decade so far. From the second they share the screen and begin their flirtation; sparks fly between Powell and Arjona. But once they are in the midst of their illicit affair, the sexual chemistry is explosive between the two of them as they play out their life changing romance. From the way they look at each other, their passionate body chemistry, or the undeniable romance that forms between them that Gary is willing to risk his entire life for, audiences are going to feel the heat and passion between Powell and Arjona as they hold their breath seeing if Gary and Madison’s romance will survive the outside forces building against them.
While the film belongs to the outstanding performances of Powell and Arjona, there is a strong supporting cast to round out the film. As always, Retta is hilarious as one of the officers Gary works for, delivering those hard and honest truths that Gary needs to hear in the funniest way imaginable. Austin Amelio is sleazy and shady as Gary’s suspended co-worker Jasper, creating a rivalry between himself and Gary to add to the forces working against Gary and Madison’s romance, while Evan Holtzman is exactly what the script calls for as Ray, Madison’s volatile husband. Holtzman absolves Madison of any wrongdoing by trying to hire Ron to kill his character through his performance as Holtzman is instantly hateable in the role, allowing the audience to understand Madison’s desperate efforts to escape the relationship.
While Hit Man was my most anticipated film of the Toronto International Film Festival this year, nothing could have prepared me for the dazzling, wildly entertaining and all encompassing cinematic experience it ended up being. Glen Powell delivers a career best performance in addition to penning a phenomenal screenplay with director Richard Linklater, that combined with the lovely and captivating Adria Arjona and their fiery romantic chemistry, makes Hit Man not only my personal favourite film of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, but one of my favourites of the entire year!