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‘Hit Man’ Confirms Glen Powell Is the 21st Century’s Cary Grant

The star and director/longtime buddy Richard Linklater turn a true story of a mild-mannered guy pretending to be a professional killer into a screwball crime-comedy hit

Hit Man


Flip through the pages of (or, because it’s 2024, click on) the October 2001 issue of Texas Monthly, and you’ll find an article by Skip Hollingsworth about a Houston man named Gary Johnson. He is described as being in his mid-50s, “tall but not too tall, thin but not too thin…[who] sometimes wears wire-rimmed glasses that give him a scholarly appearance.” Gary teaches a few classes at a local junior college. Mostly, however, he pretends to be a professional killer for the police department when they want to set up sting operations and catch folks on a conspiracy-to-commit-murder rap. He’s so good at his gig that Hollingsworth calls him the “Laurence Olivier of the field.” If you’re most producers looking to cast an actor to play Johnson in a film, you’d probably go with Bill Camp. If you’re Glen Powell, you read about this schlubby-looking, middle-aged everyman and you immediately think: This is a perfect role for Glen Powell.

Powell cowrote, coproduced and stars in Hit Man, the movie “loosely” based on that profile, and to call this a star vehicle is like calling the Spruce Goose a commercial plane. A true-crime parable that morphs into a surprisingly steamy romantic comedy and doubles as a dark farce about conflict resolution and capitalism, this story of a beta discovering his inner alpha feels like it’s juggling a number of different genres and tones without breaking a sweat. What the film really is, however, is a referendum on the lightly Southern-fried charm, the screen presence and the sheer wattage that the 35-year-old native of Austin, Texas, projects when you point a camera at him. You might have a hard time believing the actor is a dorky tech whiz — sorry, but Powell-plus-glasses-equals-nerd still rates as the worst Clark Kent get-up ever — who reluctantly takes to the faux-killer act. By the end, however, you’ll have no problem thinking he’s the 21st century’s version of Cary Grant.

It helps that Powell is crafting this with Richard Linklater, a fellow Texan who possesses a knack for Lone Star looniness (see: Bernie) and penning love letters to fringe Americana (see: half of his filmography). The filmmaker gave the young Powell a small role in Fast Food Nation (2006) and a big break in Everybody Wants Some!! (2016); his portrayal as a college baseball team’s resident eccentric was, for many folks, ground zero for instant fandom. They may have relocated Johnson’s stranger-than-fiction tale from Houston to New Orleans, but neither of them seem to have left their mutual comfort zones. More radically, they’ve seized on an exchange in which a woman in an abusive relationship tries to hire Johnson for his services. Rather than bust her, he suggests she leave her boyfriend and contact social services. For Hollingsworth, it’s a perfect kicker to his piece. For Linklater and Powell, it’s the beginning of a love story.

First, however, the duo let us get to know this version of Johnson. He couldn’t be more of a nebbish, preaching a philosophy of seizing the day to his students and living a life of quiet sedation at home with his cats, Id and Ego. Even his side hustle assisting NOLA’s finest is remarkable simply for how mundane it is; normally, Johnson is the guy making sure the recording equipment doesn’t crap out. This is not life-or-death work here. It’s barely even IT-adjacent.

Then one day, the unit’s go-to pseudo-assassin (Austin Amelio) gets suspended due to some unsavory activities, and Gary is forced to step in. His hit man “Ron” begins improvising with the suspect about the art of removing fingertips and scattering them along the highway to avoid crime-scene detection. Johnson’s coworkers (played by Sanjay Rao and Parks & Recreation‘s Retta) are impressed. Soon, he’s tailoring his “killers” to each client’s fantasy of what a hit man is, or ought to be, via wigs, accents, false teeth, fake scars. If Powell has secretly concocted this whole endeavor to be nothing but a stealth audition to play a fey Brit with a red bob haircut, well: Mission, er, accomplished?

Then she steps into Johnson’s life. Linklater has been having fun with the entire concept of the professional killer as a pop culture staple, whipping through a montage of famous screen murders-for-hire and snickering on the sidelines as Powell pretends to be a mild-mannered mensch pretending to be a tough guy. Now, the writer-director introduces another pulp trope into the mix and begins tweaking away: the femme fatale. Madison Masters (Adria Arjona) needs out of a toxic marriage by any means necessary. Taking pity on her, “Ron” offers a shoulder to cry on instead of entrapment and lets her walk away. His team thinks he’s gone soft. But there’s an obvious connection between the two of them. And when Gary-slash-Ron and Madison meet up again, meet-cute flying sparks turn into a carnal four-alarm fire.

This is also the moment that we witness not one but two metamorphoses, and Hit Man becomes one hell of a meta-tale about self-actualization. Gary is an invisible man, written off by everyone from his students to his ex-wife. His alter ego, however, throws everyone into a tizzy. (“He’s like a Caucasian Idris!” exclaims Retta’s wide-eyed cop.) Ron hasn’t just awakened Gary’s sense of self, he’s empowered him to be something closer to who he really wants to be. Which isn’t a killer. It’s a lover — not just of women like Maddie, but of life.

And when the undercover agent smiles at his mark, you suddenly see Glen Powell turn himself into a genuine, old-school, Golden Age movie star. He’s flipped on these Klieg lights before, in small supporting roles like John Glen in Hidden Figures (2016) and scene-stealing turns like the flyboy Hangman in Top Gun: Maverick (2022). Not to mention that guy with the square jaw and crack timing has now been dubbed the savior of the modern rom-com. This, however, is different. It isn’t just that Powell is at the center of this breezy riff on tabloid-style crime and punishment — he makes you believe that he’s the center of the universe, the way that Gary Cooper and Bette Davis and Jimmy Stewart and the aforementioned former Archibald Leach made you believe that planets rotated in their orbit. The powers that be have teed up Powell with a big above-the-title role in the upcoming summer blockbuster Twisters, where — in a true sign he’s being groomed for A-list glory — he’ll costar with CGI tornadoes. Yet this “littler,” more modest movie is his real moneymaker. You can’t take your eyes off the guy.

Nor can Madison, and while Linklater stages their sex scenes as tastefully as he can without seeming prudish, you still get singed by the emanating body heat whenever they’re onscreen together. You also get traces of Body Heat when Maddie’s husband happens to show outside a dance club they’re at, threatening both of them, and is soon mysteriously discovered dead. Even those who’ve merely breezed past a TCM Noir Alley marathon while channel-surfing can guess where this may be leading, yet even this potential plot pivot is treated with a signature casualness and a knowing, tongue-in-cheek wit.

It’s also where Arjona comes into her own as a screen partner as well. So many of her early scenes read as pantomimes of meekness, check-out-my-man bravado or massive hormonal overdose. Then she snaps into a rhythm with Powell, and it truly becomes a double act. There’s a sequence near the end where the police suspect that Madison has killed her spouse, and send Gary-as-Ron to goad her into a confession they can get on tape. When he enters her house, Johnson signals via cellphone texts that they’ve being listened to, so she needs to play along. What follows is a showstopping example of saying one thing, meaning another and physically acting out actual reactions within a conversation. It’s high screwball comedy, given a whiff of actor-centric chemistry and gunpowder.

Hit Man is still largely a one-man show, however, and no amount twists, turns, or late-act, Ealing-level doses of audience-friendly danse macabre can shake the movie from its prime directive. Your suspension of disbelief may get tested more than a few times as Linklater’s crime comedy shuffles to its ironic happily-ever-afters — ditto your tolerance for self-consciously jaunty scores — yet your faith in Powell as a real-deal leading man who can work miracles is never shaken. Gary ends up morphing into a better version of himself. The guy playing him doesn’t need that kind of radical transformation. You get the feeling, watching him onscreen — and while this hits Netflix on June 7th, it’s in theaters now and you should definitely see this with an audience if you can — that Powell is exactly who and where he wants be.

From Rolling Stone US