Hit Man Review: You Owe It to Yourself to Watch Glen Powell’s Movie Stardom Manifest

Glen Powell and Adria Arjona threaten to steam the lens in Hit Man, an unlikely rom-com and film noir mash-up.

Glen Powell in Hit Man Review
Photo: Netlfix

“When did our professor get hot?” This is a query posed by one enterprising student in a psychology 101 seminar to another. In that exact moment, they’re watching their part-time instructor, a previously nebbish Glen Powell, begin acting like… well, how you might expect Glen Powell to act if you’ve seen Top Gun: Maverick and Everybody Wants Some!! (although in those flicks he never was so cocksure while explaining the societal virtues in summary execution).

And honestly, you cannot help but feel like those surprised coeds. Not in regard to realizing Powell is hot. There’s a reason or two a movie like Anyone But You can gross $200 million in this moviegoing economy, and it’s not the script. Nay, what is realized between the opening moments of Richard Linklater’s Hit Man—where Powell introduces us to a Gary Johnson who is more in line with what you’d expect from a single professor who lives alone with two cats—and the end credits, is that you’re watching a talented leading man transform into a full-blown movie star. For industry prognosticators, he’s a talent who’s long been pegged as someone on the bubble for that exact form of metamorphosis. Yet by reteaming with fellow Texan filmmaker Linklater for a third time (and their first as co-writers), the actor has carefully designed for himself a peach of a breakout turn.

Hit Man is, indeed, a coming out party for much of the talent involved, be it on-the-cusp performers like Powell and co-star Adria Arjona (who is also superb), or Linklater who himself hasn’t felt this frisky and light of touch in nearly a decade. By modern standards, Hit Man might just be the new textbook definitions for a star vehicle and an irresistible crowdpleaser. Only this one is so infectious, so unapologetically giddy, that the fact you’re probably only ever going to see it on Netflix is a kind of crime worthy of its own summary execution. And if you feel that way, Linklater’s film will insist it knows a guy.

His name is again Gary Johnson, an unassuming moniker for an unassuming man. Beginning the movie as a milquetoast loner who seems perpetually destined to live his life on the outside looking in, Gary even has made that activity something of a side hustle: He moonlights as a techie for the New Orleans police department. Always the guy in the van and the chair, he listens in as hardcase Jasper (Austin Amelio) enjoys the glory as the department’s undercover “hit man.” In truth, he’s really just an unpleasant barfly who makes money by posing as a tough assassin in various sting operations. But after that faux-toughness gets Jasper suspended from the force for a month, Gary’s superiors decide to try using their token nerd as the bait.

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Turns out that he’s a natural.

Taking to his pretend contract killer persona like a theater kid offered the chance to play Pippin, Gary not only makes an unnervingly enthusiastic, credible assassin, but he begins researching each performance with maximum commitment. His colleagues start calling him “Daniel Day” as he bespoke tailors every “hit man” he plays for each surprisingly bloodthirsty local in New Orleans’ greater 10 parishes. Whether they want a spouse, business partner, or their mother dead, Gary is there to seemingly help, often over a helping dose of pie at the local diner. Never has a city’s underworld seemed quite so sunshiny golden.

Still, that morning glory starts to heat up after Gary (or rather “Ron”) meets Madison (Arjona), a genuinely terrified wife who believes murder is the only way out of a toxic, abusive marriage. That she happens to be beautiful surely has nothing to do with “Ron’s” choice to help guide her toward divorce instead of indictment. Nor, of course, does that attractiveness cross his mind when “Ron” agrees to check up on Maddy after the fact. You know. As a friend.

The brilliance of Hit Man comes from more than buddies Linklater and Powell knowing what kind of showcase the latter needs to break bad (although they do tellingly include a montage of Gary’s various “hit men,” which acts as a rogue’s gallery of oddballs and cinephile easter eggs). In addition to recognizing how to smartly wink at the audience, Linklater also has long displayed a genius for riffing on and shifting between genre tones. And with Hit Man, he’s figured out how to turn a veritable film noir into a meet-cute comedy.

Much like how a true story of murder became a feel-good laugher about small town values in Bernie—or how School of Rock still works surprisingly well as a movie about the fundamentals of music appreciation—Linklater and Powell draw loosely from the real story of Gary Johnson, who posed as a hit man for Houston law enforcement during the 1980s and ‘90s, to make a film that is a stealth romantic comedy between a phony and a damsel in distress. Or perhaps it’s of a femme fatale and her mark?

You’re never really quite sure who is fooling who when it comes to Ron and Maddie, but it doesn’t much matter when the steam they’re generating threatens to fog the lens. Hit Man is thus also an unexpectedly sexy movie that plays a bit like a guilt-free, feel-good thriller. After all, since Ron’s not really a killer (nor actually named Ron), how could this possibly turn dark?

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Finding a way to have its pie and eat it too, Hit Man’s script is simultaneously traditional and deceptively clever. Still, the main reason the movie is lethally effective comes down to everyone knowing what they have in Powell and Arjona’s performances. The charisma pulsing through the film is hot to the touch, but it’s utilized in a film squarely fixated on making you laugh. It is no surprise, then, that Hit Man has been killing them for months on the festival circuit. Toronto, New York, London. Everywhere the film’s played, it’s left folks smiling and beguiled.

That most audiences will only now discover it on Netflix is therefore bittersweet. Easily the best film the streaming service has secured in months (if not more than a year), it’s comforting to know that those who watch films only on Netflix will finally have a winner to put their phones down for. But this really is a film meant to be seen with a group. And perhaps some good pie.

Hit Man begins streaming on Netflix on June 7. Learn more about Den of Geek’s review process and why you can trust our recommendations here.


4 out of 5