Review: Charming and disarming, 'Hit Man' overcomes its own identity crisis

The nature of identity — essential questions of “Who am I?” and “Why am I the way I am?” — is the heady stuff of philosophy seminars and late-night self-realizations. In Richard Linklater’s new film, “Hit Man,” it is also the basis for a breezy comedy-romance crime story.

From his breakthrough “Slacker” to the more recent “Everybody Wants Some!!” Linklater has long had a knack for making films that seem to be inconsequential, lazy even, but that reveal themselves to have a sneaky depth, curiosity and insight into what it is to be alive. As he has gotten older, Linklater’s unassuming confidence as a filmmaker has become even sharper. Which is how something like “Hit Man,” which seems at first glance like a goof, also can consider some of the deepest mysteries of the human condition.

But even that is perhaps getting a little ahead of ourselves. The film is, first and foremost, a showcase for the powerful charisma, screen presence and chemistry of its two stars, Glen Powell and Adria Arjona. Powell co-wrote the screenplay with Linklater, based on a Texas Monthly article by Skip Hollandsworth, whose work also provided the basis for Linklater’s “Bernie.” Here Powell and Linklater use the real story of one Gary Johnson as a playful jumping-off point in a tale that starts out as someone needing a second job.

In this particular telling, Johnson (Powell) teaches psychology and philosophy at a small college in New Orleans, supplementing his quiet, isolated life by using his knack for technology to assist the local police department in running sting operations to capture people attempting to hire a hit man. (In the film and elsewhere, Linklater has strenuously made the far-fetched assertion that hit man is an occupation that does not actually exist.) One day circumstances find Gary stepping in as the faux assassin, and it turns out he has a knack for stagecraft.

So Gary begins to assume a series of personas tailored to each potential client, until he meets Madison ( Arjona), a meek woman seeking to free herself from her oppressive, possibly abusive husband. For her, Gary constructs Ron, a dashing, swaggering fellow with devil-may-care insouciance and a hint of real danger. (Imagine someone like, I don’t know, rising movie star Glen Powell, who has been equally at home in the action spectacle of “Top Gun: Maverick” and the rom-com silliness of “Anyone but You” and is soon to be seen in one of this summer’s blockbuster hopefuls, “Twisters.”)

Gary (as Ron) goes against protocol and convinces Madison to use the money she was going to spend to kill her husband and instead start a new life. Which she promptly does, taking up things her husband hates, such as volunteering at a pet rescue, letting her hair fall in loose, natural waves and wearing figure-hugging short skirts. And she reaches back out to Ron to thank him for setting her in the right direction.

Madison likes Ron. Gary likes Ron. Everybody seems to like Ron, and so Gary starts to adopt more of Ron into his own personality. Which only becomes more confusing as he — Gary, as Ron — starts to see more of Madison. They are both finally able to be the people they have always wanted to be, until things become complicated even further when her jerk of a soon-to-be ex-husband does indeed turn up dead.

It’s here that the movie’s own identity crisis comes into play. As it hints toward darker notions of what one is genuinely capable of and how you live with yourself afterward, the movie’s tone can’t sustain itself and the film lags as it dutifully plays out the curlicues of its plot mechanics. That is until it hits a showstopper scene — applause breaks have been reported from numerous festival screenings — in which Gary and Madison stage an argument between Madison and Ron for the sake of audio surveillance to prove their innocence while functioning on multiple levels of persona at once, saying one thing with their mouths while portraying something entirely different with their eyes and bodies. It’s the hottest thing in a movie that also features old-fashioned grown-up sex scenes.

Arjona matches Powell beat for beat in the scene and throughout the film. Her performance adds an additional layer of mystery in that it is never quite clear whether she is a manipulative femme fatale, a damsel in distress or a woman just trying to figure herself out. (Or maybe even all of those things.) While the movie may be further confirmation of Powell’s screen-star bona fides, Arjona should not be overlooked; this role hopefully will serve as a calling card for more leading roles.

Then there‘s a whole additional meta-textual layer to “Hit Man,” in that it is streaming on Netflix after a nominal, limited theatrical release. If one of the industry’s freshest, seemingly most bankable movie stars can’t get a proper full-scale release for a sexy crime-comedy, what is Hollywood even doing with itself?

And yet, regardless of where or how one sees it, “Hit Man” makes for an undeniable good time. Sometimes all you really need is a couple of impossibly attractive people enjoying each other’s company, captured by a filmmaker who knows when to stay out of their way. And if that’s not a movie, well, then, I don’t know what is.

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