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‘Hit Man’: Richard Linklater’s comic neo-noir is right on target

Glen Powell plays a nerdy professor who moonlights as a fake hit man with the New Orleans police department

Glen Powell and Adria Arjona in "Hit Man."Brian Roedel/Courtesy of Netflix

Richard Linklater’s “Hit Man” opens with a more honest twist on the familiar “based on a true story” disclaimer: “What you’re about to see is a somewhat true story.”

Indeed, the director’s take on real-life college professor Gary Johnson’s life adds some fictional plot elements to the story first reported in a Texas Monthly article by Skip Hollandsworth. To the film’s credit, it cleverly cops in the end credits to what’s been fabricated, though I’m sure you’ll be able to figure that out beforehand.

This sexy and superb comic neo-noir takes some wild swings before fadeout. A major part of what makes it work so well is Glen Powell’s performance as Gary. The actor has co-written (along with Linklater) a star-making part for himself, a role filled with twisty surprises and major personality shifts. My noir-loving heart found a lot to love here.


Glen Powell in "Hit Man."Matt Lankes / Netflix

The film is dedicated to Johnson, who died in 2022 after spending years working alongside the Houston police department as a fake hit man. More than 60 people “hired” him to off someone, not realizing that hit men are far more common in movies than in real life.

In fact, the stereotypical hit man seen in so many films and TV shows is what gave Johnson’s clients the idea in the first place. Linklater has fun with this idea, but his ultimate goal is to question how well we know ourselves — and how much we can change.

“What if self is a construction?,” Gary asks the students in his Nietzsche class. “A role you’ve been playing every day since you can remember.”

“Hit Man” is a cautionary tale about getting wrapped up in the lies we tell.

Though the genuine article worked for the district attorney’s office, this film’s Gary Johnson is a psychology and philosophy professor at the University of New Orleans. His students are bored by their nerdy teacher, who dresses blandly, lives alone with his two cats, and is an avid birder. One kid even mocks Johnson’s car — a beat-up Honda Civic.


From left: Austin Amelio, Sanjay Rao, and Retta in "Hit Man."Brian Roedel / Netflix

But on a part-time basis, Gary assists the police with wiring and recording devices during their hit man sting operations. Like his students, Gary’s colleagues — Phil (Sanjay Rao), hit man impersonator Jasper (Austin Amelio), and their unnamed boss (Retta) — are also unimpressed with him. But that’s about to change.

When Jasper is suspended for beating up innocent teenagers (and putting the resulting footage online), Gary is promoted to hit man status. Using his knowledge of psychology and a newfound sense of confidence brought on by sheer terror, he’s an unprecedented, well, hit. The job comes easy, because as he points out, when people show up to meet him, they’ve already “crossed that psychotic Rubicon.”

Glen Powell as Gary Johnson in "Hit Man."Netflix

More stings follow, and Gary becomes a master of disguises, some so absurd that they provoke raucous laughter. At one point, he looks like Alan Rickman’s Severus Snape from the Harry Potter series — with a Russian accent, to boot.

“Who’s your hit man?,” Gary asks, as he contemplates which alias will work best. Wigs and multiple accents make him the Meryl Streep of fake assassins.

“Hit Man” takes a noirish turn when Gary meets his latest client, the sultry Madison (Adria Arjona). She’s a potential femme fatale who wants her abusive husband whacked. Her hit man is Ron, an alter ego Gary creates by losing his glasses and slicking back his hair like a 1980s crime-thriller villain. Ron looks so hot even Sanjay admits he’d have sex with him.


Ron is also so cocky Gary doesn’t recognize himself in the role, at least until his compassion gets the better of him. After a serious flirtation develops during his meeting with Madison, Ron talks her out of giving him any money, thereby ruining the sting.

Adria Arjona and Glen Powell in "Hit Man."Courtesy of Netflix

The cops may have lost a perp, but Gary may have gained a girlfriend. The problem is, she only knows him as Ron. This mistaken-identity, screwball-comedy plotline starts out sexy and hilarious: Gary may be a wet noodle in bed (according to his ex-wife), but role-playing as Ron unleashes his carnal passion, which “Hit Man” observes with raunchy glee.

The love story gets thornier as things get hornier. After all, Madison is turned on by thinking she’s sleeping with a hit man, and Gary is equally turned on by portraying one. Can any good come of this deception?

As you probably can predict, things go murderously awry.

To say more would get me knocked off by Netflix, which is releasing this film in theaters before a streaming run. See it in a theater if you can. The big screen is the best place to witness the sizzling charisma between Powell and Arjona, the slimy antics of Amelio, and the comic banter between Rao and Retta.

“Hit Man” is one of the year’s best movies.




Directed by Richard Linklater. Written by Linklater and Glen Powell. Based on the article by Skip Hollandsworth. Starring Glen Powell, Adria Arjona, Sanjay Rao, Retta, Austin Amelio. At Alamo Drafthouse Seaport, Coolidge Corner. 115 minutes. R (all the neo-noir goodies: murder, hot sex, blue language)

Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.