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As a fake 'Hit Man,' Glen Powell shows off his real star power

Glen Powell finds a star-making turn as Gary Johnson/"Ron" in <em>Hit Man</em>.
Matt Lankes
/
Netflix
Glen Powell finds a star-making turn as Gary Johnson/"Ron" in Hit Man.

It seems the film industry's reputation is in a perpetual state of lament. They don’t make them like they used to can be and often is applied to movie stars, special effects, non-franchise screenplays, erotic thrillers, rom-coms.

There's validity to these concerns, though every now and then a new movie comes along with a strong whiff of throwback energy – deliberate yet breezy pacing, crackling banter that’s at once contemporary and timeless, and a performance that convinces you a star's been born right here in this moment on screen. And with it comes the warm reminder that they still can make them like they used to, and sometimes still do. Richard Linklater's sexy, nihilistic comedy Hit Man is one of those movies.

Glen Powell is Gary Johnson, a conventionally attractive yet aggressively plain psych and philosophy professor at the University of New Orleans. He's the type of unassuming jean shorts-wearing guy who blends easily into the background and is perfectly content being boring; he lives alone in the suburbs with two cats named Ego and Id, drives a Honda Civic, and appears to have no social life to speak of.

His sole quirk, if we’re going to call it that, is that he moonlights with the New Orleans Police Department, and as the movie begins, that part-time gig suddenly kicks into overdrive. When dirtbag undercover detective Jasper (Austin Amelio) is suspended for a police brutality case, Gary replaces him as the department's go-to fake hit man, meeting with – and arresting – all varieties of disgruntled recruiters as "Ron." It turns out Gary relishes convincing unsuspecting strangers he’s a cold-blooded assassin. He researches his would-be "clients" to tailor his persona to their hit man fantasies, using an array of elaborate costumes, wigs, and fake makeup. For one suspect, he eerily resembles Patrick Bateman.

Hit Man sounds wacky in premise, but it’s loosely based on a Texas Monthly profile of a real Gary Johnson, who worked on-call for the Houston Police Department and was dubbed the "Laurence Olivier" of undercover murder-for-hire investigations. Linklater and Powell, who co-wrote the screenplay, take the bones of Johnson’s story and embellish it for cinematic effect, slipping from a slick, lightly comical procedural in the first act to an erotic cat-and-mouse game by the film’s climax. Like the private detective archetype in film noir, Gary is eventually hired by a gorgeous young woman, except in this case, she's looking to off her controlling husband. Maddy (Adria Arjona) is, of course, pouty and flirty and femme fatale-y, and gets him entangled in quite a compromising pickle.

Adria Arjona as Madison and Glen Powell as Gary Johnson in <em>Hit Man.</em>
Brian Roedel / Netflix
/
Netflix
Adria Arjona as Madison and Glen Powell as Gary Johnson in Hit Man.

The story stays grounded by avoiding a few present-day pop culture clichés – thankfully there are no obvious needle-drops here – and the clear, electric chemistry between Powell and Arjona, whose dynamic evokes Jack and Karen’s frenetic dalliance in Out of Sight.

But above all, this is Powell's movie. It’s almost too easy to draw direct parallels between him and Gary, but sometimes the most obvious thing is also the most correct. The actor’s been kicking around Hollywood for some time now, more recently playing an antagonist in Top Gun: Maverick and whipping gossip blogs into a frenzy with his Anyone But You co-star Sydney Sweeney. Yet like Gary the professor, he’s been more of a side salad than an entrée, inoffensive and fine, not exactly memorable. Ron the fake-contract-killer affords Gary the chance to tap into a part of himself that’s far more fascinating, and Powell plays this uber-confident side to the hilt. When Ron utters a corny catchphrase about pie with a straight face or goes off on a smooth tangent in great detail about how he’ll "dispose" of a body, Glen Powell, capital-M Movie Star suddenly makes sense as a concept.

Hit Man’s final act is the kind you either go with or get frustrated by. It’s a big swing that tests the limits of suspending disbelief. But the movie’s driving theme reflects curiosity about the human capacity for change and self-creation, a struggle to decipher where the “real” essence of you begins and/or ends. In Gary, Linklater and Powell find a character who cleverly demonstrates how anyone, especially a movie actor, can mold the persona they wish to have – with the right tools.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Aisha Harris is a host of Pop Culture Happy Hour.