Netflix’s Hit Man isn’t just a breezy crime caper — it’s a stealth rom-com with one standout scene

Adria Arjona and Glen Powell stare romantically into each other’s eyes at a firing range in Hit Man
Image: Netflix

This breezy movie is as elusive and changeable as its hero

I first saw Hit Man, the new Richard Linklater movie now streaming on Netflix, at an early morning press screening at the London Film Festival. The film played really well and the audience was into it, but I was still shocked when one late scene drew huge peals of laughter from the audience and an actual applause break at its climax. An applause break! At 9:30 in the morning! From film critics! British film critics! (Something you may not know about British people: We don’t applaud in movie theaters. Ever.)

Just as surprising: the content of the scene that drew that response. Given the movie’s premise — a professor poses as a contract killer to help the police arrest people for soliciting murder, but gets lost in the role — you might guess the audience was hooting at a Tarantino-esque slapstick bloodbath. But the scene was, in fact, the most cleverly conceived and delightfully played piece of pure romantic comedy I’d seen in years.

Glen Powell looking nerdy in front of a chalkboard in Hit Man
Photo: Matt Lankes/Netflix

As a filmmaker, Linklater is fluent in genre conventions, but he often finds his own space in the cracks between them. In that sense, Hit Man is true to form. Written by Linklater and its star (and frequent Linklater collaborator, and Top Gun: Maverick heavy) Glen Powell, it’s an easygoing movie that doesn’t break a sweat as it flits between comedy, romance, suspense, philosophical musing, and a quiet tinge of noirish darkness. Under a straightforward, pleasing exterior, the movie is elusive and prone to shape-shifting — a bit like its main character.

That character is Gary Johnson (Powell), a placid, nerdy professor of philosophy and psychology with a talent for electronics. That talent leads him into a side hustle running recording equipment for the New Orleans police department, and helping with a sting operation where a cop named Jasper (The Walking Dead’s Austin Amelio, in venal mode) poses as an assassin to catch people in the act of soliciting murder. When Jasper gets suspended and Gary is parachuted into the sting at the last minute, he discovers a new talent for role-play. He takes to being a fake hitman like a duckling takes to water.

Gary, student of human nature that he is, pours himself into researching his marks and constructing identities that will work for each of them. Contract killers are a myth anyway, he reasons, so why not lean into the fiction and play into the expectations formed by decades of cinematic assassins? Powell has a lot of fun donning wigs and voices to imitate a comical range of stereotypical killers. At one point, he does an absolutely uncanny impression of Christian Bale in American Psycho.

Glen Powell grinning suavely in shades in Hit Man
Image: Netflix

Up to this point, Hit Man is a more-or-less true story. There was a real Gary Johnson, in Houston, Texas, a mild-mannered cat-lover who moonlighted for the police as a fake hitman in the 1990s and 2000s. For the movie, Powell and Linklater adapted a 2001 Texas Monthly article about the real Johnson, who might not have donned so many disguises, but certainly got the arrests.

It’s a good yarn about a resonant character — the unassuming everyman who can take on another identity to slip into a netherworld. In the process of fictionalizing this story, Powell and Linklater spin it out in two directions: a philosophical inquiry into the mutability of the self, and a light romantic thriller. Gary adopts the role of cucumber-cool hitman “Ron” to meet Madison Masters (Adria Arjona), a wife who wants her abusive husband killed. He’s smitten — but is it with Madison, or with Ron, the super-smooth, confident, uninhibited version of himself he has invented for her?

For its first half, Hit Man ambles along pleasantly in a typical Linklater mode: the anecdotal shaggy-dog story that takes plenty of time to muse about its own implications. (Quite 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 in a long black wig, leather coat, and weird sneer in Hit Man
Image: Netflix

The stakes for a hitman movie where real hitmen don’t exist seem pretty low, but the dual-identity setup with Gary/Ron and Madison is a classical Hollywood comedy gambit, like something out of a 1940s Preston Sturges movie. It kicks the movie into an uptempo second half that is more constructed, plotty, and commercial than Linklater’s usual extremely chill work. It’s easy to imagine it done in a more heightened, screwball mode — maybe something like Jonathan Demme’s quirky, snowballing 1980s comedies Something Wild and Married to the Mob.

That isn’t Linklater’s vibe, though, and that isn’t this movie. Powell and Arjona make a powerfully sexy, charming pair, and Powell and Linklater find clever ways to enmesh the characters’ simmering romance in a tightening web of compromise, danger, and deceit without tipping into the crime movie clichés the movie is spoofing.

The payoff is that perfect rom-com moment, the one that drew applause from a crowd of sleepy London critics. It’s a spectacularly conceived, written, and performed scene that plays out on two levels simultaneously: one in the fiery, hard-bitten dialogue, one in the flashing eyes, frantic gestures, and crackling chemistry of the two leads. In this moment, Hit Man joyously (and pointedly) unites the thrill of connection with the thrill of danger, and operates harmoniously as two films at once — the same way Gary is perhaps becoming two people at once.

Adria Arjona and Glen Powell look lovingly at each other outside 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 some slackness in the script elsewhere. Arjona’s part is underwritten, and as willing as Powell and Linklater are to ponder the big questions, they gloss over some of the moral implications of the storyline: Gary’s arguable gaslighting, Madison’s culpability and agency, and whether the police operation was wholesale entrapment in the first place.

There’s a darker side to this story and these characters, strongly hinted at by one surprisingly cruel late turn in the plot. Powell and Linklater nod to that darkness, but ultimately decide not to go there. Just as Gary can decide to turn himself into Ron, they can decide to steer this slippery movie into a sunnier place. Hit Man could have been a lot of different movies, and part of the joy of the film is in how playfully it gestures toward all those different potential versions of itself. But ultimately, that one perfect scene defines it as a great romantic comedy with a delicious bite.

Hit Man is streaming on Netflix now.

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