Richard Linklater’s offbeat rom-com Hit Man is sweetly sadistic

Glen Powell is a fake assassin in new comedy Hit Man; he cowrote the script with director Richard Linklater. Luke Buckmaster likes the film’s twisted moral conscience and screwball-lite tone.

There’s a good reason the protagonist of Hit Man doesn’t ring true as a killer for hire—because he isn’t one. In Richard Linklater’s breezily enjoyable romantic comedy, a minor work for the veteran director but nevertheless a rock-solid genre subversion, Glen Powell’s Gary Johnson is a New Orleans philosophy professor who, as you do, spends his spare time wearing a wire for the police, pretending to be an assassin in order to convict people of conspiracy to murder. The premise fully swings into gear when Gary, by now a dab hand at playing a gun for hire, meets a faux-client, Adria Arjona’s Madison, who he talks out of killing her husband, leading to a romantic relationship between them.

The film is introduced as a “somewhat true story”, inspired by real events unpacked in a 2001 Texas Monthly magazine article. By the sounds of things it’s a little less factual than Linklater’s 2011 masterpiece Bernie: a true crime or true-ish crime black comedy starring Jack Black as a Texan mortician who kills a mean old lady, shoves her body in an ice freezer, then gives her money to charity. Hit Man unfolds in a lower key, taking the edge off what could’ve felt devilishly sharp and prickly. I wonder how a director of farce—like French auteur Francis Veber—might’ve handled it. Or what it might’ve looked like from a screwball comedy director à la Preston Sturges or Howard Hawks.

The diner-set scene connecting Gary and Madison playfully segues from a conversation about murder to a date-like scenario, this interaction demonstrating the film’s ability to go there without really going there: he’s a hit man but he’s not; it’s a murder plot but it isn’t. This in fact is a meet-cute, even if that term generally describes something a little…cuter than a woman trying to hire a man to off her husband. When they begin dating, Gary maintains the ruse and his supposed profession doesn’t seem to bother her. Does Madison sense something, have a feeling he’s not who he says, that he’s a good guy?

It doesn’t seem that way. She’s turned on by the idea of having sex with a killer and that fantasy dynamic turns him on too. While having a sensual bubble bath together, Gary talks BS about how he manages to stay a few steps ahead of the game—clearly relishing the pantomime. There are whispers here of True Lies: the way Jamie Lee Curtis’ character loves the idea of liaising with a dangerous man—Bill Paxton’s car salesman, pretending to be a secret agent—made ironic by the fact that her husband, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character, unbeknownst to her is a secret agent.

I liked the two lead performers in Hit Man more than I liked their performances. Powell and Arjona are affable and a bit light-headed, resolved to remain charming even when the script steers their characters into precarious places. There’s particularly pronounced twists in the second half, as one might expect, which could’ve fuelled a hard-edged, noir or noirish crime film, but Linklater’s lightness of touch smooths the edges and creates a weirdly dichotomous tone: this film is almost sweetly sadistic.

Hit Man has a slippery, borderline conscienceless sense of morality, which weirdly becomes kind of refreshing. The last act (no spoilers) finds a satisfying resolution via outcomes that, again, wouldn’t feel out of place in farce or screwball, the quick wit of the characters matching the quick wit of the script. But it’s not perfect and despite being a thoroughly entertaining counter to a monumentally over-represented genre—the assassin movie—the tone doesn’t quite sit right, being neither genuine nor self-effacing. The ultimate message, espoused by the pseudo hitman, that one should live life on their own terms rings amusingly hollow; he’s being serious, but we’re not sure about Linklater.