Richard Linklater’s ‘Hit Man’ Is a Wickedly Fun Throwback to Classic Cinema’s Comedic Romance With Murder

Director Richard Linklater knows how to make enjoyable, relatable, and extremely fun films. His latest feature, “Hit Man,” is engaging and entertaining from its first moments, and never loses its momentum or affability, much like its title character. University of New Orleans philosophy and psychology professor Gary Johnston may not always know what his true self is, but actor Glen Powell did the research, and is ready to pass it on to the class. 

“Live dangerously,” Gary advises his students in the opening scene, quoting Nietzsche, only to be unceremoniously reminded by a budding class clown that the teacher drives a Honda Civic. This is masterful foreshadowing of plot and, more importantly, character. Yes, there is something boiling beneath the cool exterior of the encouraging professor. There is an air of deceit. The unobtrusive gray Civic is a tool, a façade in the making, because sometimes the Ego is no match for the ID or the Superego, and an offramp to an escape route burns a lot of emotional steam. 

A good case could be made that the psychology teacher should see a therapist. Gary Johnson is divorced, though he is on very good terms with his ex-wife. He has taken a second job to make ends meet, and offers case studies which subconsciously worm their way into his curriculum. Gary works for the New Orleans Police Department as an undercover hit man. Fake, of course, but living life as close to dangerously as is possible in the New Orleans area. 

Johnson confronts murderous intent on a daily basis for his second job, but doesn’t like to come on as confrontational. The key to Powell’s unlocking of this character is waiting for the invitation. The fake hit man is on good terms with murderous intent. They are old friends. A little advice and understanding goes a long way. This comes across effortlessly as both Powell and Gary are natural actors. Each of them deliver award-worthy performances. Both have spirit gum, false mustaches, and briefcases of makeup. While both see themselves as lone wolves, there is some collusion. All great crimes are a conspiracy, and everyone benefits from pulling it off. 

“Hit Man” opens with a note stating that it is almost a real story, and is based on the “Texas Monthly” profile of Gary Johnson, who worked for the Houston Police Department, and co-wrote the screenplay with Linklater. In the film, Gary is a mild-mannered onlooker at the beginning of his tenure with local law enforcement. He winds up replacing the transparently corrupted cop Jasper (Austin Amelio) because of a police brutality charge from a teen suspect. Jasper is upfront, and actually at his most likable when plotting or executing blackmail payoffs. The rest of the time, none of the other cops really want to be seen with him. To be fair, they are not too hot on Gary either. That is until he finds his most endearing undercover identities.

About a third of the way through this exploration of the dual nature of humanity, “Hit Man” is hijacked by the rom-com genre. The criminal element is not discarded, but complemented. The marriage of styles is made just short of heaven, a more interesting destination than paradise, and one with more to offer. As a potential client in the murder-for-hire setup, or suspect in the entrapment-designed sting operation run by the police, Madison Masters (Adria Arjona) pushes the envelope even after her initial offer is declined. The undercover hit man, calling himself “Ron” at the meeting, does not see a killer at the diner, but a confused woman in pain and emotional shackles. Sparks fly with more boom than the TNT “Ron” claims to use to destroy dental records, and playfully skewered romantic comedy ensues.

No aspect of the genre mash takes away from the other. Linklater finds the perfect fit, and before long the audience is rooting for the most unprofessional couple in New Orleans, and all the misdeeds done in exquisitely agonizing irony to any given situation. These early scenes stumble gracefully toward timeless screwball comedy. When Madison and “Ron,” the nicest hit man in cinematic history, break the airtight rules of their special relationship, it confoundingly increases the tension, while solidifying the forbidden romance. This makes for carefully unbalanced casual comedy because it bounces so happily off the on-the-job hazards of an undercover hit man, a real executioner’s perfect client, and the murder suspect of his dreams. 

Arjona and Powell make the nightmares work. Their banter is timeless. Each actor transmits perfect setups with flawless timing, and each retort volleys with an expert curve. Murders are hard enough to get away with, but the comedy of errors which follow Gary and Madison adds equally copious amounts of suspense as laughs. Each tightening of the screw is funny, as every potential cost is feloniously problematic. 

An insurance policy discovered after the shooting death of Madison’s husband draws the added cinematic weight of film noir. A millisecond grin and a little stash is all it takes to turn Madison into an ideal femme fatale. We buy the evolving morality, budding romance, and unethical solutions just as much as the suspicions, and chain of evidence. This equidistance between light and dark makes the comedy more biting while adding to the feeling of impending doom. The center of the hurricane is the most fun place to be.

Vague spoiler warning, but a large portion of the audience may find the ending stretches realistic possibilities a little far. However, what works here is the nonchalant way the two lovers accept, and celebrate the disposal of a very real problem. The audience gets a thrill from a kill, and it is a bit of a turn on. Linklater’s most impressive subversive action is exposing the concept of contract killers as a scam, perpetuated by law enforcement all too happy to exploit Hollywood depictions for entrapment arrests. Gary gets hit with this accusation while on the court stand, as his studies of human nature, research into suspects, and enticing disguises make him as inhuman as Christian Bale’s ice-cold killer in “American Psycho.” When Gary takes on the persona for a meeting, it is a laugh a minute.

Linklater is one of the great directors in the history of American film. His versatility remains consistent throughout his career. “Hit Man” flirts with the best experiments of a Frank Capra classic. It touches on the darkness in human nature, murderous, premeditated, and calculated plots of greed and vengeance, but leaves a very bright aftertaste. The worst crime portrayed in the film is the one which was made up. Even this is forgivable in the overall social structure Linklater creates. Good people can do bad things, and if they do them well, it makes for a wonderfully twisted feel-good movie. It feels great to say it. 

Hit Man” begins streaming June 7 on Netflix.