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Hit Man review: Netflix's crime thriller is a surprisingly good romantic comedy

I saw for the first time HitManthe new Richard Linklater film, now streaming on Netflix, at an early morning press screening at the London Film Festival. The film did really well and the audience loved it, but I was still shocked when a late scene drew huge laughter from the audience and, at its climax, a real applause break. An applause break! At 9:30 in the morning! From film critics! British Film critics! (Something you may not know about the British: we don't applaud in the cinema. Ever.)

Equally surprising: the content of the scene that provoked this reaction. Given the film's premise – a professor poses as a hitman to help the police arrest people who are being incited to murder, but loses himself in the role – you might think the audience would have been in for a Tarantino-style slapstick bloodbath. In fact, the scene was the most cleverly conceived and well-acted piece of pure romantic comedy I'd seen in years.

Photo: Matt Lankes/Netflix

As a filmmaker, Linklater is familiar with the conventions of the genre, but often finds his own space in the spaces between them. In this sense HitMan is true to form. Written by Linklater and its star (and frequent Linklater collaborator and Top Shooter: Maverick heavy) Glen Powell, it's a loose film that doesn't break a sweat as it switches between comedy, romance, suspense, philosophical musings, and a faint hint of noir gloom. Beneath a straightforward, pleasant surface, the film is elusive and prone to shapeshifting – a bit like its main character.

That character is Gary Johnson (Powell), a quiet, nerdy professor of philosophy and psychology with a talent for electronics. That talent leads him to a side job operating recording equipment for the New Orleans police department and assisting in an undercover operation involving a police officer named Jasper (The Walking Dead's Austin Amelio, in corrupt mode) poses as a hitman to catch people in the act of plotting a murder. When Jasper is suspended and Gary parachutes in at the last minute, he discovers a new talent for role-playing. He feels like a duckling in water as a fake hitman.

Gary, a student of human nature, devotes himself extensively to researching his victims and constructing identities that work for each of them. Contract killers are a myth anyway, he argues, so why not lean on fiction and play to expectations shaped by decades of cinematic assassins? Powell has a lot of fun donning wigs and voices to imitate a comical array of stereotypical killers. At one point he imitates Christian Bale in American Psycho.

Glen Powell grins casually with sunglasses in Hit Man

Image: Netflix

Until here, HitMan is more or less a true story. There was a real Gary Johnson in Houston, Texas, a gentle cat lover who moonlighted as a fake hitman for the police in the 1990s and 2000s. For the film, Powell and Linklater adapted a 2001 Texas Monthly article about the real Johnson, who didn't wear as many disguises but certainly made the arrests.

It's a good story about a powerful character – the unassuming everyman who can assume another identity to escape into an underworld. In fictionalizing this story, Powell and Linklater spin it in two directions: a philosophical examination of the mutability of the self and a light romantic thriller. Gary takes on the role of cool hitman “Ron” to meet Madison Masters (Adria Arjona), a wife who wants to kill her abusive husband. He's smitten – but is it Madison or Ron, the super-smooth, confident, uninhibited version of himself he invented for her?

For the first half HitMan bobs along pleasantly, in typical Linklater fashion: the anecdotal, hair-raising story that takes plenty of time to ponder its own implications. (Literally: Gary quotes Nietzsche and ponders questions of identity and morality with his college class. Also, his cats are named Ego and Id.)

Glen Powell with long black wig, leather coat and strange grin in Hit Man

Image: Netflix

The stakes seem pretty low for a killer movie where there are no actual killers, but the dual identity with Gary/Ron and Madison is a classic Hollywood comedy gag, like something out of a 1940s Preston Sturges film. It launches the film into a fast-paced second half that's more contrived, plot-heavy and commercial than Linklater's usual extremely cool work. It's easy to imagine it was made in a more heightened screwball mode — perhaps something like Jonathan Demme's quirky, sprawling comedies of the 1980s. Something wild And Married to the Mafia.

That's not Linklater's mood, though, and that's not this film. Powell and Arjona are an incredibly sexy, charming couple, and Powell and Linklater find clever ways to entangle the characters' simmering romance in an ever-tightening web of compromise, danger and betrayal without falling into the crime thriller cliches the film parodies.

The climax is that perfect romantic comedy moment that drew the applause of a crowd of sleepy London critics. It is a spectacularly conceived, written and acted scene that plays out on two levels at once: one in the fiery, hard-hitting dialogue, one in the flashing eyes, frantic gestures and crackling chemistry of the two leads. In that moment HitMan joyfully (and purposefully) combines the thrill of connection with the thrill of danger, working harmoniously like two films at once – just as Gary perhaps becomes two people at once.

Adria Arjona and Glen Powell look lovingly at each other in front of a bar decorated with fairy lights in Hit Man

Photo: Brian Roedel/Netflix

It's such a satisfying scene that it more than makes up for the script's weaknesses elsewhere. Arjona's role is underplayed, and as willing as Powell and Linklater are to ponder the big questions, they gloss over some of the moral implications of the plot: Gary's questionable gaslighting, Madison's guilt and agency, and whether the police operation was a trap at all.

There's a darker side to this story and these characters, which is clearly hinted at by a surprisingly gruesome plot twist at the end. Powell and Linklater allude to that darkness, but ultimately choose not to dwell on it. Just as Gary can decide to turn into Ron, they can decide to take this raunchy film in a sunnier direction. HitMan could have been many different movies, and part of the joy of the film is how playfully it embraces all of these different possible versions of itself. But ultimately, that one perfect scene defines it as a great romantic comedy with a delicious bite.

HitMan is now streaming on Netflix.