Glen Powell as Gary Johnson in 'Hit Man'
(Netflix)

‘Hit Man’ Is a Good Movie. There’s Just One Thing Keeping It From Being Great.

With an irresistible leading man and surprising moments of cerebral self-awareness, Richard Linklater’s Hit Man is a supremely enjoyable movie—the kind of movie Nicole Kidman could point to and say, this is why we come to this place. And yet for all its entertainment value, there’s one thing about Hit Man I simply cannot get over.

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Powell effortlessly performs his duties as Hollywood’s new favorite leading man in Linklater’s latest, which Powell also co-wrote, loosely based on the true story of Gary Johnson, a college professor who helps local cops catch would-be murderers by posing as a hit man. Like some of Linklater’s best films, Hit Man is both entertaining and thought-provoking, and Linklater remains one of the few filmmakers capable of earnestly spelling out his film’s themes and ideas through otherwise tired tropes. There’s a near-metatextual utility to scenes in which Gary waxes philosophically about identity and the human capacity for change, occasionally while standing in front of a chalkboard and encouraging students to engage with what are ultimately the thematic underpinnings of the entire film.

All of which is to say that, while immensely enjoyable to watch, Hit Man is also a smart movie made by a thoughtful filmmaker interested in asking fundamental questions about human existence and psychology. So why did I spend most of this movie feeling insane? If you’re excitedly rubbing your hands together, eager to get into the Glen Powell of it all—is he a star? is he even a good actor?—we’ll get there because I do think that the problem with Hit Man, even if it is a me-problem, has a lot to do with his performance.

As far as characters go, Gary Johnson is a real one: he wears his polo shirts tucked into jorts, for crying out loud. This man is a total dork. When he’s not teaching psychology and philosophy to college students, Gary is caring for his two cats (Id and Ego—like I said, the man is a dork) or hanging out with his best friend, who also happens to be his ex-wife. He is, like most men in their 30s, suffering from Adult Man Disorder—the sort of acute malaise self-inflicted through a chronic hesitancy to step outside of his own comfort zone. And he looks like Glen Powell, despite Linklater’s hilarious efforts to hide it behind a pair of glasses, as if he were the protagonist in a teen rom-com, the dorky incel girl who’s beautiful but doesn’t know it.

The problem isn’t necessarily that I don’t buy Powell as Gary, a man who adopts various hit-man personas—including a charming hot guy named Ron, who is essentially Glen Powell—to entrap his targets: people eager to pay a professional to kill their spouses, business partners, and/or enemies. The problem is that Gary is a psychopath, and it takes far too long for Hit Man to acknowledge this, to the extent that I couldn’t tell if Linklater genuinely perceived Gary as a conventional romantic lead in an unconventional rom-com, or if he knew that his protagonist (and his love interest, for that matter) is a walking red flag at best and an absolute lunatic the rest of the time.

Gary is a thirtysomething adult man who works a full-time job as a college professor and spends his off-hours helping cops catch people in the act of commissioning a hit. To put it another way: What kind of psycho volunteers to work for the cops in his free time? I’m sorry, but ACAB includes Gary—even when he goes off-book to let Madison (Adria Arjona), a beautiful woman desperate to escape her cartoonishly shitty husband, off the hook. I don’t care that Gary looks like Glen Powell. He’s still a cop. For a movie with such a pronounced investment in human psychology, it’s bizarre that Powell and Linklater’s script never addresses this fundamental part of Gary’s character and instead seems completely uninterested in interrogating why an intellectual college professor enjoys working for cops. That’s not exactly a popular hobby. (However, a fairly well-known stereotype about serial killers is that they tend to befriend cops or insert themselves into police investigations. Not for nothing: several serial killers have also turned out to be former cops.)

While it’s fun to watch Gary try on different heavy-handed personas (vaguely Russian assassin, sexy but dumb pool boy, Patrick Bateman), there’s always a sense that we’re being sold a product. And that product is Glen Powell.

In case you missed the memo, Glen Powell is Hollywood’s new chosen one—the leading man determined to prove that being a movie star is still possible in a world where movie stars have become an endangered species. He learned from one of the best, his Top Gun: Maverick co-star and the man who will someday force us all to watch him die on an IMAX screen (and happily purchase a ticket to do so), Tom Cruise. In this phase of Cruise’s career, he’s become holistically involved in the moviemaking process, gaining authorial control of every project he’s in—for better and worse.

Of course, Powell is playing with spare change in comparison to Cruise’s Monopoly money, but there is something undeniably fascinating about watching the former carve out his movie-star persona. As the co-writer and star of Hit Man, Powell is teaching the audience how to watch and appreciate him. He’s engineered a movie that’s tailored specifically to his strengths, making every aspect—the disguises, the nesting doll of performances within a performance, even the title of the movie itself—part of a larger meta-narrative. And it’s compelling precisely because Powell wasn’t elected to be America’s new favorite leading man by popular vote; he was anointed and hard-launched by industry decree. Most male actors of his conventionally attractive ilk would happily sign on to lead similarly conventional IP-driven action movies that underperform at the box office, but Powell recently told an interviewer that he turned down a role in Jurassic World and he’s not interested in joining the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Glen Powell isn’t following in the footsteps of the Chrises, and he’s not meandering haplessly from one tentpole to the next like a carelessly misplaced Charlie Hunnam, either. He also doesn’t seem to be internalizing the lesson many actors with leading man-looks have struggled to learn: the more conventionally attractive you are, the weirder your roles need to be. Or, if you look like a leading man, you need to act like a character actor.

Powell attempts some version of this in Hit Man, donning an assortment of specific personas, but most of them (save for the Russian) play up his handsomeness. His ability to transform from one into the next reads more sociopathic than chameleonic, underscored by scenes in which Gary researches his targets to figure out what kind of hit man they’d prefer to meet. In some ways, it feels like watching an actor try to figure out what kind of leading man the audience would prefer to see.

If you’re Gary Johnson, undercover cop, being a blank slate that other people can easily project and map desirable qualities onto makes you a stronger asset. If you’re Glen Powell, a walking experiment in modern movie stardom, being a blank slate is ultimately a detriment. We don’t watch Mission: Impossible movies because we love Ethan Hunt. We watch them because we love watching Tom Cruise. I’m also not sure we’d enjoy watching them nearly as much if they were released straight to Netflix, like Hit Man was—which isn’t really Powell’s problem, but in another sense, it kind of is.

None of this is to say that Glen Powell is a bad actor—those screens in movie theaters are blank for a reason—he just needs to decide what kind of actor he wants to be. Does he want to be taken seriously, or does he want to be a movie star?


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Author
Britt Hayes
Britt Hayes (she/her) is an editor, writer, and recovering film critic with over a decade of experience. She has written for The A.V. Club, Birth.Movies.Death, and The Austin Chronicle, and is the former associate editor for ScreenCrush. Britt's work has also been published in Fangoria, TV Guide, and SXSWorld Magazine. She loves film, horror, exhaustively analyzing a theme, and casually dissociating. Her brain is a cursed tomb of pop culture knowledge.