Tales of lone assassins and guns for hire are all based on urban myths. That’s the fact gleefully revealed in Richard Linklater’s latest crime comedy Hit Man, premiering at Venice this week. “Think about it,” asks the film’s protagonist Gary Johnson (Glen Powell), “is someone really going to risk the death penalty for a few thousand bucks.” It’s a good point.
Johnson is a philosophy teacher who supplements his income with part-time work for the New Orleans Police department as an electronics expert. When an undercover cop called Jasper (Austin Amelio) falls foul of an internal enquiry and is suspended, Johnson must step into his shoes. Posing as a triggerman named ‘Ron’, Johnson soon finds he has a knack for assuming the role of a cold-eyed killer, thus preventing murders and jailing those who go so far as to plan it. The legal and moral ground is shaky, as is pointed out in several court scenes by the defence lawyers, but Johnson is happy to go along, enjoying this bizarre experiment.
In a way, Johnson is simply channeling the audience and how we feel when watching Leon, Jason Bourne, James Bond or Alain Delon. It makes such a contrast to the other side of his life. A keen birder and owner of two cats called Id and Ego respectively, Gary is a Clark Kent-like nerd. In other words, once the hunky Powell takes off his glasses he looks like the offspring of Ryan Reynolds and Brad Pitt. Speaking of which, Johnson’s neat double-life is complicated when he meets Madison (Adria Arjona), a woman in an apparently abusive marriage who needs the help of a hitman to escape it.
Taking pity on her, Johnson nudges Madison away from larceny and towards escape, and the two are soon in a relationship. The twist is that Madison is really attracted to Ron and not the dweeb he actually is. But who is he, actually? So far, so existential. His ex-wife (Molly Bernard) turns up to talk brain plasticity and how people can change their own personalities by adopting different behaviours. Is Gary Johnson turning into Ron simply by playing him? Aside from the philosophy, a lot of comic mileage is made of Johnson changing each of his assassin personas to match the client. “We all have our idea of the perfect hitman,” he explains. So he shows up with an array of wigs, British, Russian or good ol’ boy accents, and varying personas depending on the clientele.
Following the polymorphous perversity of Poor Things, Hit Man is also another steamy nail in the coffin of the “sex scenes are bad” discourse romping around whatever is formerly-known-as-Twitter with badly cut hair. Powell and Arjona are sexy as all get out. Their burgeoning relationship has the fizz of real danger and the chemistry of Clooney and Lopez in Out of Sight. Linklater keeps things moving in a clever and fast way, while allowing his ensemble room to breathe.
Sanjay Rao and Retta play off each other very well as Johnson’s police handlers, who are equally impressed and slightly turned-on by the transformation in their colleague. There are jokes in the cat bowls and the street signs, and such a lightness to everything you almost don’t notice how strange everything suddenly becomes. Linklater’s Hit Man is an Aperol Spritz with enough fizz and prosecco to cover the taste of the strychnine. This could be one of the brightest dark comedies of recent times.
The 80th Venice Film Festival takes place from 30 August-9 September.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty