‘Hit Man’ Review: A Star-Clinching Turn for Glen Powell

If I see a movie more delightful than “Hit Man” this year, I’ll be surprised. It’s the kind of romp people are talking about when they say that “they don’t make them like they used to”: It’s romantic, sexy, hilarious, satisfying and a genuine star-clinching turn for Glen Powell, who’s been having a moment for about two years now. It’s got the cheeky verve of a 1940s screwball rom-com in a thoroughly contemporary (and slightly racier) package. I’ve seen it twice, and a huge grin plastered itself across my face both times.

That’s why it’s a shame most people will see it at home — Netflix is barely giving it a theatrical release before it hits streaming even though it’s the sort of movie that begs for the experience of collective gut-splitting joy. Oh well. If you can see it in a theater, it’s worth it. If not, then get your friends together, pop some popcorn and settle in for a good old-fashioned movie for grown-ups.

The director Richard Linklater and Powell collaborated on the “Hit Man” script, which is loosely based on Skip Hollandsworth’s 2001 Texas Monthly article about Gary Johnson, a faux hit man who actually worked for the Houston Police Department. In the movie version, Gary (Powell) is a mild-mannered philosophy professor in New Orleans with a part-time side gig doing tech work for law enforcement. One day, he is accidentally pulled into pretending to be a hit man in a sting operation, and soon realizes he loves playing the role.

Or roles, really: The more Gary gets into it, the more he realizes that each person’s fantasy of a hit man is different, and he starts to dress up, preparing for the part before he meets with the client. (If this movie were solely constructed as a de facto reel demonstrating Powell’s range, it would work just fine.) Then, one day, pretending to be a sexy, confident hit man named Ron, he meets Madison (Adria Arjona, practically glowing from within), a put-upon housewife seeking his services. And everything changes for Gary.

A great deal of the enjoyment of “Hit Man” comes from simply witnessing Powell and Arjona’s white-hot chemistry. Seeing Powell transmogrify from nerdy Gary to five o’clock shadow Ron and back again is both hilarious and tantalizing, while Arjona has a big-eyed innocence crossed with wily smarts that keeps everyone, including Gary, guessing. Multiple layers of deception keep the movie from feeling formulaic — you’re always trying to keep track of who thinks what, and why. Eventually, when “Hit Man” morphs into a kind of caper comedy, part of the joy is rooting for characters as they make choices that are, at best, flexibly ethical. In doing so, we get to be naughty too. In a movie starring a philosophy professor, that’s especially funny, a wry joke on us all.

But there’s more surprising philosophical depth in “Hit Man” than meets the eye. While on the surface it’s more or less a romantic comedy, beneath the hood it’s a coming-of-age story for Gary, whose life has stagnated. After a divorce, he lives alone with his two cats named Id and Ego and a large collection of plants; his students make fun of him for driving a Honda Civic, and he eats cereal for dinner. Gary is perfectly content with his life, or at least he thinks he is. But it slowly becomes clear the simplicity is less choice and more comfort zone. He’s lost himself somewhere along the way. He’s ruled out the possibility of surprise and adventure. Being a fake hit man gives him the possibility of inhabiting other selves, other lives — of trying on identities for size.

The question of the self — where it resides, whether we’re stagnant or able to change — has long been a fixation for philosophers, and Gary is no different. He declares his “primary interest” to be “the eternal mystery of human consciousness and behavior.” At the start of the semester, he tells his students that they’ll be challenging the notion of the self that semester, from social identity to close relationships. “What if your ‘self’ is a construction, an illusion, an act, a role you’ve been playing every day since you can remember?” he asks them, smiling. Teacher, teach thyself.

That inquiry is woven throughout “Hit Man,” which takes a definite point of view on the subject. Yes, the self is changeable — but it takes a bit of bravery to discover who you want to be. What’s more, no man is an island. The self doesn’t change when we grit our teeth and decide to be different, but when other people see us, recognize who we are and decide to love us for it.

Don’t get me wrong. I can imagine some enterprising philosophy teachers constructing extra credit assignments around “Hit Man,” but it definitely doesn’t feel like homework. You don’t even have to pick up on the headier bits to have a load of fun. It’s radiant and loose and confident, the kind of movie that you can just tell was a blast to make, which makes it a blast to watch. As our overstuffed big-budget era starts to falter, let’s hope they start making movies like this again.

Hit Man
Rated R for a few artfully shot sex scenes, some bad language and a bit of hit man work. Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes. In theaters and streaming on Netflix.

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