‘Hit Man’ Review: It’s a Hit, Man

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.

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