Glen Powell gets it in gear in ‘Hit Man’

Netflix via AP
Glen Powell in a scene from “Hit Man.”
Can a lame haircut turn Glen Powell into a character actor? Here’s two more for you: Is Glen Powell a huge movie star in the making, thanks to “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Anyone But You”? And if he isn’t, is he at least nimble and versatile enough to play one when needed?

The answers to those questions are encouraging. I doubt that would’ve been the case four or five years or seven or eight films ago. In the highly engaging “Hit Man,” now in a few theaters and on Netflix, Powell reunites with his fellow Texan, director and screenwriter Richard Linklater, for a romantic comedy with a few nicely plotted turns and storytelling priorities, including little to no interest in jacking up narrative stakes the usual way, i.e., people getting pistol-whipped or shot up for laughs, or kicks.

“Hit Man” takes it easier. It comes from Skip Hollandsworth’s 2001 Texas Monthly feature about a Houston undercover master of deception, Gary Johnson, who at the time worked for the Harris County district attorney’s office. His job: Faking like he was a professional killer for hire in sting operations. Lots of them. Successful ones. “Although plenty of cops have pretended to be hit men in undercover murder-for-hire investigations,” Hollandsworth wrote, “Johnson is the Laurence Olivier of the field.”

The script by Linklater and Powell takes the premise and goes its own way, resetting things in Louisiana. This version of Johnson is a sweet, divorced, cat-loving philosophy professor at the University of New Orleans, who moonlights for the police doing office-based tech work. When a weaselly undercover cop runs into ethical trouble, a nervous Johnson gets thrown into the real action, reluctantly, “playing” a hit man in a prearranged, wired-up meetup with a potential client. Turns out he has a knack for improv under pressure. The mild-mannered, temperamentally cautious Johnson, the philosophy wonk preoccupied with the id, the superego and questions of identity, vanishes altogether. A cooler, meaner, more charismatic Johnson comes out to play.

Powell’s romantic co-star in “Hit Man” is Adria Arjona as flight attendant Madison, a hungry-eyed woman trapped in an abusive marriage. She enters the story first as a woman looking for a sympathetic ear and a potential hit man lover, then in a more pragmatic, solution-oriented way. The narrative isn’t built on big reveals or massive twists; rather, it takes artfully logical detours that work even when credulity is strained a bit, using the simple device of Johnson’s philosophy classroom lectures as bullet points for what the teacher is learning outside the classroom. (When he dons a jet-black wig and studious Slavic dialect impersonating a hit man of indeterminate Eastern European origin, Powell goes for the full Tommy Wiseau “The Room” vibe.)
If “Hit Man” is about anything beyond its own blithe, eccentric comic assurance, it’s about finding new oxygen for your next chapter in life. Ethics? Well, Johnson doesn’t teach ethics, so that’s someone else’s story. Not since “Out of Sight” has a sort-of-crime-thriller, sort-of-romantic-comedy led with its sensual interests over its violent ones. That’s my idea of a good trade, and Powell is more relaxed and easygoing on screen here than ever before.

Like Steven Soderbergh and precious few other American filmmakers of huge talent and some commercial instincts, Linklater believes in the modestly budgeted genre exercise, especially when he can turn genres on a dime, within one story. Netflix may have preferred “Hit Man” to ditch the comedy and lean into the recreational slaughter for a climax, in the style of the literal hundreds and hundreds of millions Netflix spent on junk like “The Gray Man.” With a less ridiculous budget but similarly soul-crushing results, David Fincher took on “The Killer” and made precisely the sort of supercool hired-assassin adventure the world did not need.

The world, in other words, did not need one more hit man fantasy played straight. “Hit Man” is the hit man movie for the rest of us. The irony? It ends up playing its love story for more than decoration. Linklater got solid, committed supporting work from Powell in their 1980s college comedy “Everybody Wants Some!” Here, the star gets all the leeway and screen time he needs, as both character actor and leading man, to make his mark without just hitting his marks.

Phillips reviews movies for The Chicago Tribune.