Movie Review: Hit Man

Okay, I finally get Glen Powell.

My feelings about Glen Powell began to shift last month when, at the premiere of his new film, Hit Man, his mother held up a sign that read: “Stop Trying To Make Glen Powell Happen.”

The thing is, I had uttered those very words myself. From Top Gun: Maverick to the romcom Anyone But You to the upcoming (and unnecessary) Twister remake, it did seem like Hollywood was shoving this guy down our throats. Yes, Anyone But You was a surprise box office hit, but I felt like too many people were attributing its success to Powell, when I thought costar Sydney Sweeney was the real secret weapon. I found him to be both bland and smug as an actor, a combination that reminded of none other than Ryan Reynolds. (Spoiler alert: I’m not a fan of Ryan Reynolds.)

But there was his mom with this sign, which said a lot. It said he has a sense of irony about himself. And it said he has a good relationship with his mom. So I softened.

Then I saw Hit Man—which, after a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it theatrical run in a few select cities, is now streaming on Netflix—and I had to cry uncle. For starters, Powell is credited as the co-writer of the film, along with director Richard Linklater. That’s…hot. Also, he’s undeniably great in it, displaying acting chops that had heretofore been hidden to me (or maybe I’d just overlooked them).

Yes, it’s a doozy of a role, designed to make its lead actor look good. But you still have to ­pull it off—and Powell does that and then some.

Remarkably, the film is based on a real person, although the details of the story are made up. When we first meet Powell’s Gary Johnson, he’s got wire glasses and stringy hair and he sports cargo shorts. He’s a philosophy and psychology college professor by day and police IT guy by night. As he talks about Nietzsche’s concept of living passionately, one of his students mutters under his breath, “You drive a Civic.”

Indeed, Gary leads a very quotidian life. He’s a birder, who also has a couple of cats, and he doesn’t date much.

Even working for the police department isn’t especially sexy. He’s the guy in the truck making sure the wires are picking up audio and video correctly as they monitor a cop named Jasper (Austin Amelio), who is pretending to be a hit man for hire. That is, until one day Jasper gets suspended for roughing up a suspect a bit too zealously and Gary’s supervisor, Claudette (Retta), turns to him and says, “I’m thinking you’re up.” Gary stares at her, slackjawed: “I’m up?”

But there’s no time to spare. The mark—that is, the suspect who called up the department’s fake hit man—is waiting in a diner. Gary has listened in on countless such sting operations, Claudette reminds him. Plus, there’s no one else, except for Gary’s co-worker Phil (Sanjay Rao), who balks at the idea. (“Tried it years ago. Almost got killed,” Phil says—not quite words of encouragement.) So, against his better judgment—or maybe because he’s secretly yearning for a passionate life—Gary wires up and heads into the diner.

What he discovers, both in the diner and at several other such sting operations, is that he’s a very good fake hit man. Not only does he stay calm under pressure, but his background in philosophy and psychology allows him to read the mark and figure out exactly who they want him to be. It’s quite funny as he goes from Russian tough guy to fancy Eurotrash to gun-loving good ol’ boy. (The only thing all of Gary’s hit men have in common is that they all like pie. “There’s no bad pie,” is Gary’s motto, which is pretty solid, as mottos go.) And Linklater brilliantly ushers us through those encounters—first a scene at the designated meeting spot, then a brief conversation, an exchange of money, and a jump cut to the suspect’s baffled mug shot after their arrest. Foiled by Gary again!

The film maintains that hit men don’t actually exist—they’re just something we see in movies. (Is that true? Mind blown!) But people want the concept to be real, want to believe that they can make a single phone call and all their problems will magically go away. The wish fulfillment aspect of it is almost poignant and Linklater and Powell lean into that.

When Gary is hired by the beautiful Madison Masters (Adria Arjona), he decides she wants a confident, cool hit man named Ron. Which his exactly what he becomes. Ron wears sunglasses and a rugged leather jacket. His hair is slicked back. He’s got a roguish stubble. It’s Ron who convinces Madison not to off her abusive husband, but instead, to use the money she was going to pay him to move out. It’s against the rules—he’s there to catch the bad guys, not become their life coach—but he can’t help himself. He’s taken with her and believes her to be a good person.

And even though Gary broke protocol, both Phil and Claudette become enamored by Ron, too. They agree that while Gary is a mild-mannered nerd, Ron is an extremely doable stud.

So, as Ron, Gary begins to romance Madison—also an ethical no-no, needless to say. And he starts becoming Ron in real life.

“When did Mr. Johnson get so hot?” one of his students whispers. Turns out, Ron was inside Gary all along. He just needed to tap into him. This mirrors the Kantian concept Gary is teaching about the self being a construct.

Yup, Hit Man has romance, a bit of action, philosophy, and tons of clever humor. It’s a delightful film, nearly perfect on its own terms, and it’s an important one, too—it made me a Glen Powell believer.