One night in 2016, I was working at a small movie theater in Austin, Texas, when a man leaned over the cash register and shook my hand. “Thanks for tonight,” he gleamed. He had kind eyes and a warm smile. All I’d done was show up for my shift, so I nodded back and forgot about it. There was some fundraiser going on. Minutes later, a co-worker grabbed me: “You just shook the hand of a murderer.”

It wasn’t Richard Linklater––he’s clean––but it was one of his characters, this time in real life: Bernie Tiede. “Murderer” might not be the fairest label for Bernie, but the East Texas saint-turned-sinner is the poster child for the many sweet, chatty men that undergo severe change across Linklater’s filmography. He might also be the closest character to the newest: Gary Johnson. Or should we call him Ron?

Like Bernie, Gary is gracious, gentle, agreeable, polite, alone, and real. As the opening text informs us, the film is a “somewhat true” story based on a 2001 Texas Monthly article of the same name by Skip Hollandsworth. And like Bernie, Gary unexpectedly finds himself in the heat of murderous desires. The difference is that they’re not his.

The first bite of Hit Man is a Linklater salad with extra dressing––School of Rock meets Waking Life meets A Scanner Darkly… at least under the surface. We watch Gary, a middle-aged square (Dewey Finn), give a lecture on Nietzsche (the recurring Jesse) at the University of New Orleans to an unamused class (Ned Schneebly). His students don’t know this, but when he’s not teaching he works undercover for the New Orleans Police Department (Bob Arctor). Much like Fake Ned Schneebly being a “rock star,” it’s not as cool as it sounds. 

A film that actually tried to blend the aesthetics and concepts of the three mentioned above would be fascinating (more likely terrible), but that’s not Hit Man. That’s why Gary’s gig isn’t as cool as it sounds. There is no ever-morphing mask over his face or rotoscoped psychedelic dreamscape around him, no depth or intrigue when we meet him. He’s not even in the action. He’s just a boring tech guy in the van helping cops catch people who (technically) haven’t done anything wrong yet. Until they make the hire.

Gary works for a small sting operation that baits people looking for a hitman. It’s like To Catch a Predator but with killers for hire instead of kids. Gary’s not the guy, of course. Everyone agrees he couldn’t pull it off. Too lame. Plus, he has no interest. But they have no choice when the regular faux hitman (a gut-busting Austin Amelio, who becomes an embittered work-nemesis) isn’t available.

In no time, Gary warms up to the role. He finds confidence in the imposed freedom to create other identities for himself, and it turns out he’s a natural. So much so that when the other guy gets back they insist that Gary keeps doing it. He studies his subjects ahead of time and becomes the fantasies of his prey, tailoring the hitman to the client in what amounts to a memorable montage of a multiverse of Glen Powells on the job. 

When it finally comes to Maddy Masters (Adria Arjona)––a married woman trying to get rid of her abusive husband––he goes with “Ron,” a tough, cool, sensitive dream guy that he pulls off with shocking poise. Ron is less absurd, and requires much less prep, than some of Gary’s other personas. Thus he’s able to keep up the act when Maddy, who he graciously and unprofessionally talked out of the hire, starts to fall for him.

Like lightning, Ron and Maddy crack into a honeymoon phase and the invisible magic of romantic chemistry pours from the screen like a waterfall, flooding the theater with the warmth and contentment that only that kind of connection can conjure. About halfway through, the situation gets out-of-hand and they have to improvise, Gary working within the improvisation that already is Ron. But the waterfall never stops flowing, their spark an IV of romcom ecstasy that will get you in front of the next Powell and/or Arjona picture with a sense of urgency.

When it comes to genre, Hit Man lands firmly in School of Rock territory. It doesn’t hit the bullseye quite like the Jack Black rock comedy––that’s a microscopically small target, not the expectation––but has the mood and tone of a tastefully executed studio comedy, this time made outside a studio.

The light-hearted style sticks out among Venice Film Festival’s international arthouse fare like an American in Europe––cute, saturated, superficial, immature––which is to say it looks a bit garish and quickly put together. It’s not a film you’d come to for score, sound design, editing, or cinematography alone. They all unremarkably fit the bill. But the characters, the chemistry, and the comedy under Linklater’s direction is simply too sensual and charming to ignore.

What Hit Man lacks in technical craft, it compensates for in allure, the most organically sexy movie you’ll see this year. Almost too sexy at times (this is not a problem). As in: there’s no way you watch this with someone you’re into and get through more than 20 minutes without pausing or abandoning it for another night (or another; it might take a few tries). That’s one of the strengths in hiring two of the hottest people on the planet.

But studios do that all the time and it’s very hit-or-miss, in most studio’s hands a miss. What should be hot (think: Focus––Will Smith and Margot Robbie) is miraculously rendered stale, unsexy. Whether it’s because there was no chemistry between the leads, or the screenplay was rewritten by 17 people, or executives meddled to a film-numbing fault, it doesn’t matter. You can feel the difference. And Linklater knows that from experience.

Here, we’re rolling 7s, hitting home runs, banking half-court shots, serving aces––you name the sports metaphor. (To single men, gambling is a sport.) This is the man that gave us the Before trilogy, after all.

Walking into the screening, I confidently told my friends I didn’t think Powell had what it took to be a leading man, the hot take machine that I am. Walking out, I was washing my mouth out with soap. Powell’s performance is one thing––an absolute blast––but the fact that he hands-on-produced and co-wrote the film is something else entirely. It’s a burgeoning phase that proves there’s much more to the actor than handsome acting chops and a traditionally masculine glow (though both are certainly, thankfully on full display). One small step for Richard Linklater, one giant leap for Glen Powell.

Hit Man is about as close to an indie project as films by noteworthy directors come these days. Putting their money where their mouths were, Linklater (Detour Filmproduction), Powell (BarnStorm Productions), and Jason Bateman (Aggregate Films) teamed up to produce with their own companies, and Linklater and Powell wrote the screenplay together. It’s surprising to learn Bateman didn’t write it, too: his contagious, down-to-earth sense of humor is palpable across the project.

For example, there are boatloads of laugh-out-loud one-liners. On several occasions the audience minorly erupted, one prompting feverish applause. (“Chivalry may be dead, but I didn’t kill it.”) It’s a clever line but not that funny. The same line in another film might get a chuckle. But Linklater turns the flirt up to 11 in the moments before its delivery and lands the finish with gold medal marks that go way beyond its written potential.

With Hit Man and Apollo 10½ in back to back years, Linklater seems to be finding a late-career stride of inspired creativity that hearkens back to his best phases: the knockout first three (Slacker, Dazed and Confused, and Before Sunrise), the explosive stretch from 2001 to 2006––in which he directed seven wildly different features, School of Rock, Waking Life, and Before Sunset among them––and the iconic 2011-2014 run that culminated in Boyhood. Hit Man is far from one of Linklater’s best, but in the context of his career it’s a welcomed addition, and on its own a damn good time.

Hit Man premiered at the 2023 Venice Film Festival.

Grade: B-

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