4 out of 5 stars

If the state of true crime media in the 2020s were to be summarised in under 10 words, perhaps the phrase that appears at the beginning of Hitman would be the most fitting: “Based on a somewhat true story”.

The playfully elusive nature of that statement perfectly captures Richard Linklater’s latest film, Hitman. While an endless barrage of true-crime documentaries clogs the arteries of streaming services, Linklater offers something much lighter, yet with far more substance. Even if it’s only “somewhat” truthful.

Hitman is loosely based on a 2001 article published in Texas Monthly—the self-proclaimed “national magazine of Texas”. Journalist Skip Hollandsworth recounted the unbelievable true story of a mild-mannered philosophy professor and cat lover named Gary Johnson—who also happened to moonlight as a fake hitman.

Scooped up by local law enforcement for his chameleon-like ability to change his appearance, voice, and character, the practising Buddhist would be deployed to ensnare potential clients seeking a quick and permanent solution to their problems.

Richard Linklater (Boyhood), who co-wrote Hit Man with star Glen Powell (Top Gun: Maverick), curiously relocates the action from his native Texas to New Orleans. As the opening statement of the film suggests, he also makes a few narrative embellishments.

This statement isn’t an admission of guilt, but rather a prompt to consider the truth’s mercurial nature. Linklater and Powell aren’t trying to pull the wool over your eyes. They want you to be sceptical, with Linklater suggesting in interviews that hitmen, strictly speaking, don’t exist.

Powell, whose version of Gary Johnson also narrates the film, happily chats away as clips of cinema’s many hitmen spool out before us, from Alan Ladd’s Phillip Raven in This Gun for Hire (1942) to Bill Hader’s Barry (2018-2023).

Hitmen, he tells us, are complete bunkum—at least, the kind we see on screen. They’re fantasies dreamt up to make audiences feel like there’s a sexy, thrilling world of danger just beyond the bounds of law and order. Have the movies trained us too well to believe the legends, or is Hit Man’s call for us to think critically just another form of misdirection? Whatever the case, when it comes to the world of clandestine assassins, audiences want to believe.

In his civilian garb, Gary Johnson (Powell) sports a nerdy outfit and lank, unstyled hair. No amount of dressing down can disguise the fact that Glen Powell is a genuine movie star, the kind they supposedly don’t make any more. His charm is effortless and vintage, a millennial Robert Redford, if you will.

I first saw him in Linklater’s loveable frat-house comedy Everybody Wants Some!! (2016), and his easy-going charm complements the director’s affable style.

If you can see the movie star beneath Gary’s drab stylings, you’re not alone. As soon as he becomes Ron—an alias he favours for meetings with targets—his colleagues comment on his newfound appeal. “I’d rip my IUD out for Ron,” claims Claudette (Retta), a police officer who hadn’t given Gary a second glance until his transformation. “Ron” sees Powell pulling off a seemingly limitless supply of charm, the beige shirts replaced with leather jackets, the dork-turned-cowboy taking over diner booths as he schmoozes with targets. It turns out he has a knack for acting and improvising, quietly dishing out details about severed fingertips and dynamited heads as if they were forbidden government secrets rather than absurd fantasies.

Gary’s fascination with the workings of the human mind (his cats are aptly named Ego and Id, respectively) comes into play here—who better to impersonate another person than someone who understands what makes them tick? It’s an experiment to him, and protected by Ron’s tough, alluring exterior, he finds the confidence to take greater and greater risks for his research.

When a woman named Madison (Adria Arjona) meets with Ron to purchase his services, he makes a snap decision to refuse her money. The fear and uncertainty in her eyes are unlike those of the other potential clients we’ve encountered. It’s her husband she wants dead—he’s violent and abusive, and she desperately needs to escape. Ron can’t bear to see her trapped when what she truly needs is help. While Linklater enjoys showcasing the simmering bloodlust beneath the surface of some Americans (one angry teenager offers Ron a pile of PlayStation games to kill his mother), the novelty here wears thin, revealing the daily pain and anger that lie beneath.

“A lot of it is seeing how love has curdled into hate, and murder seems like the best way out,” says Gary, putting it bluntly how trapped and desperate many of his targets are. In Madison’s case, it’s not revenge she seeks, but a clear path that will allow her to escape. She cannot, she believes, achieve that with her husband still alive.

What unfolds is a complex web of love, guilt, and secrets. Ron and Madison’s chemistry crackles from their very first scene together. It’s hardly surprising that a whirlwind romance blossoms—keeping them apart would feel almost criminally wasteful. Their delightful back-and-forth, captured by Linklater’s unobtrusive and observant style, is enough to give you butterflies.

This is the quintessential romantic Linklater of Before Sunrise (1995) returning to form. A dyed-in-the-wool romantic whose greatest gift to cinema is perhaps his unparalleled ability to capture love at the moment it blooms. Whether they’re making love, or sharing ice cream under the glow of a neon sign, Ron and Madison’s intoxication doesn’t waver. It’s as intoxicating as the New Orleans nights they wander through.

Even as the tension mounts and Gary’s true identity threatens to be revealed, Linklater’s commitment to swooning romance is admirable. Hit Man might be about American violence and the changeability of human nature, but what it captures is the first, nerve-wracking weeks of getting to know a new romantic partner.

It’s about the dry mouth at the end of a date, and the questions you can’t wait to ask. These are the questions you know you can’t answer, and the unspoken lust—it’s the comfort of what we know about a person and the allure of the unknown.

Gary inhabits multiple, broader characters depending on who he’s meeting. They range from MAGA enthusiasts to Eastern Bloc enigmas. However, Ron is the man Gary aspires to be, and the one who captures Madison’s heart. Like a director crafting a new world, or an actor embodying a fictional character, Gary embraces the artifice until it becomes indistinguishable from the truth. It’s all a grand deception anyway—a new relationship is simply the clearest opportunity we get to reinvent ourselves, to become the person we’ve always hoped to be.

Richard Linklater has never shied away from characters who discuss the core themes of his films, and Hit Man is no exception. While this tendency might be divisive, there’s great joy to be found in Linklater’s eloquent pontificators. Whether it’s the seventies kids in Dazed and Confused (1993) debating the savagery of humanity, or Ethan Hawke’s well-meaning but feckless dad in Boyhood (2014) comparing the post-breakup legacies of The Beatles, there’s a fond familiarity with these people.

They’re guys who’ve had a few too many beers, girls who’ve smoked one too many joints—they’re Jesse and Celine in Before Sunrise, trying to quietly impress each other with their observations. Whether you want to get as far away from these people as possible, or whether you hear yourself in their spaced-out contemplations, they’re fundamental to Linklater’s rambling and welcoming style.

Being privy to Gary’s thoughts about identity and personhood doesn’t strip the film of its subtext. Instead, it enlivens discussion and invites disagreement. Linklater isn’t a didactic filmmaker—he’s too much of a stoner to ever get that worked up. Rather, he’s a great suggester. His characters offer perspectives, not answers. Just watch his gonzo animated feature Waking Life (2001) to discover just how contradictory and clashing some of the viewpoints expressed in his films can be.

Hit Man is a further expression of Linklater’s pet themes, but over thirty years into his career, he’s taking the scenic route and finding beautiful new details along the way. It could be argued that this is the Texan settling into a late style, but it’s perhaps best viewed as him further cementing and developing a style he established in the 1990s—that of a filmmaker wielding a deceptively strong grasp of cinematic language, but with the confidence to be unflashy with it. His focus is on people, and he’s one of the true humanists of cinema.

Hit Man is the rare date film that offers something to chat about over dinner afterwards. Similarly to David Fincher’s richly rewarding and understated The Killer (2023), this is a veteran director operating at his most confident, refined, and, most importantly, entertaining. As a star vehicle for both Glen Powell and Adria Arjona, it’s scintillating. As a truthful biography, it’s shaky—but then, who’d ever want the films to tell us the truth? And, even if Gary’s real life followed a different path, does that make the film any less truthful? As a character in a Richard Linklater film once quipped: “Isn’t everything autobiographical?”

USA | 2023 | 115 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

frame rated divider netflix

Cast & Crew

director: Richard Linklater.
writers: Richard Linklater & Glen Powell (based on an article by Skip Hollandsworth).
starring: Glen Powell, Adria Arjona, Austin Amelio, Retta, Sanjay Rao & Molly Bernard.