HomeMoviesVenice Film Festival Review: Hit Man

Venice Film Festival Review: Hit Man

Photo Credit: Brian Roedel

We’re introduced to Gary Johnson (played by co-writer Glen Powell) as a pleasant, pleasurable psychology professor. Not knowing anything about the true story going into the film, I expected his chipper nature to be darkly contrasted by the titular Hit Man elements, almost like a Tarantino character. Yes, he’s all smiles when teaching and embracing his tech geek hobby, but surely, I thought, this happy doofus won’t have that same smile when killing. I thought wrong. Hit Man features no actual assassins, only people pretending to be them, and only two of these pretenders at that, Gary being one of them. Hit Man is, instead, a story about a little white lie, not unlike co-writer-director Richard Linklater’s School Of Rock

This starts with Gary’s side gig, where he uses his tech knowledge to help the local police. They have a sect dedicated to catching people trying to hire a hitman, and when the precinct’s go-to hitman impersonator (Austin Amelio) is put on leave for assault, Gary lucks his way into the job. Given no time to prepare, he proves himself with this impersonation, adapting to the psychological state of his so-called client. Gary quickly learns the job is not about being a convincing assassin in the broadest, one-size-kills-all sense. Rather, it’s about convincing the person in front of him. He tailors his look and personality for each person he’s duping. His personas get more absurd, sillier, and more intricate, ranging from a creepy Hannibal Lecter slime ball to a hilarious Russian badass who wears a dark trench coat in the middle of summer. 

Eventually, Gary has a reason to selfishly benefit from his lie. He meets Madison (Adria Ajorna), a distraught wife who wants to escape her abusive husband. Rather than let her out herself so that his partners can make the arrest, Gary stops her. He sees she’s struggling, in a bad place, and desperate (and gorgeous). It’s the first time he can empathize with someone hiring a hitman, and he doesn’t want her to throw her life away. From here, things start off pretty great, as any story about a little white lie will. Think of The Incredibles, when Mr. Incredible lies to his family to make a ton of money, and how happy things seem: such is the case with Gary. Gary’s heralded by his coworkers, Madison’s left her abusive husband, they start a fling that will clearly go places romantically, and that will clearly start problems. Part of the problem is that Gary embraces his persona as a hitman. No, he doesn’t kill people, but he exhibits action-hero confidence that would attract anyone, and it’s in these moments that Powell’s gift as both co-writer and actor shine through. 

Some of the best action heroes are great at both being the badass and deconstructing the badass (something John Cena affirmed in 2021, with his excellent work as a straight-up badass in Fast 9 and mocking a straight-up badass in The Suicide Squad). Coming off his breakout role as the handsome douchebag with a heart of gold in Top Gun: Maverick, Powell shifts between chipper nice guy to mouth-watering badass with an unfathomable smoothness. Having worked with Linklater on Everybody Wants Some, the director continues his great tradition of co-writing with his leads (having written Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight with Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke), and their artistic intuitions are perfectly in sync. Linklater has made a name for himself in dabbling in both the realistic (the Before trilogy) and the absurd (Waking Life), and Hit Man’s core concept allows him, Powell, and their co-writer Skip Hollandsworth to explicitly explore this dichotomy through its protagonist. It’s acknowledged in the opening of the film that the concept of a paid assassin isn’t a real thing, but people believe it’s real, and that belief is enough. 

That sympathetic belief in an absurd concept is the foundation for Hit Man’s tones. Through Gary, his own embellishments, and some embellishments of Gary’s true story, Hit Man marvelously captures both. His outfits are not impossible, like the rotoscoped images of A Scanner Darkly, just hilarious and unlikely. His badass action-hero persona has some truth to it, but there are enough lies that you just want Gary’s true self to come out. 

There is a particular embellishment that defines the film. The credits acknowledge the embellishment as just that. This embellishment is not brought up to be spoiled, but to leave you curious, and inquiring about Hit Man as its own thing. You can read as much as you want on the real Gary Johnson, but only Hit Man will tell you its own story, with its own absurdities, its own catharsis, and its own embellishments. And it’s very much worth checking out. 


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