It was 22 years ago that Skip Hollandsworth wrote a Texas Monthly article about Gary Johnson, a school teacher who moonlights as a hit man who doesn’t kill people. Now if that doesn’t sound like the formula for a hit movie, you may understand why it has taken so long for Gary’s story to make it to the silver screen — so long in fact that its subject passed away before he could hit the red carpet of the Venice Film Festival, where the film is having its world premiere tonight.
Nevertheless, Glen Powell never forgot the story and has teamed with Richard Linklater to finally tell it, though it is only “loosely” based on the original article. Certain details in the screenplay co-written by Linklater and Powell are made up, and those are the details that actually help make this a hilarious winner, as well as perhaps Linklater’s most commercial movie since School of Rock. Its quirky true crime element also has a bit in common with Linklater’s Bernie, which starred Jack Black. The director seems drawn to this kind of offbeat tale, with some level of truth to it.
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Powell plays the role of Gary Johnson, who works part-time for the New Orleans Police Department as a fake hit man, a master of disguise who with the unit assigned to him sets up lots of unsuspecting marks by agreeing to kill whatever friend, loved one, relative or other person they want offed. Wired and ready to pounce, Johnson simply gets them to say the magic words about wanting him to commit the murder and voila, they are arrested. The film’s opening half hour has Powell, almost in Peter Sellers mode, disguising himself in different getups to trap various targets who don’t know what they are getting into. In real life, Johnson nailed about 70 people desiring his services to kill on their behalf.
Where the movie takes its own course is when Johnson, using his fake name of Ron, becomes attracted to a beautiful woman named Madison (Adria Arjona), who is trying to hire him to kill her abusive husband. He actually shows some humanity by convincing her it would not be worth the risk to go through with it, much to the disdain of his co-workers in the van listening in and wondering why he let this one get away. That becomes obvious when he begins secretly dating her but under his pseudonym of Ron, now posing as the fake hit man in the pursuit of a new romance, but of course not letting on to his colleagues that he is doing this as it obviously would be unprofessional.
One of those colleagues, Jasper (Austin Amelio), is jealous of Gary as he wants the job and is only his #2. He begins to suspect that something is up, and if he can prove it he knows it will be the end of the line for Gary. It all becomes complicated when Madison’s jerk of a husband Ray (Evan Holtzman) confronts the pair as they are out on a date. Soon and coincidentally, the NOPD team gets a new customer. Guess who? Now it is Gary who has to turn up to take the job offer for a hit on his wife from Ray, who later turns up mysteriously dead. What has happened? Who did it? Suddenly, Hit Man has the elements of a noirish mystery.
Linklater knows just exactly how keep all the balls in the air of this complex story of a hit man who wasn’t a real hit man who just could become a hit man all in the name of love. Billy Wilder would have loved it because it is bordering on Double Indemnity territory. Powell is the perfect fit for this leading role, and clearly he knew it as he also writes and produces with Linklater. He makes all the disguises and changing circumstances seem effortless to navigate. Arjona is a beauty and plays off him nicely with good chemistry between the pair. Amelio is a hoot, the guy who we need to hate here. Retta as Claudette and Sanjay Rao as Phil make up the rest of Gary’s team and they all blend together.
Producers are Mike Blizzard, Linklater, Powell, Jason Bateman and Michael Costigan. The film next heads to the Toronto Film Festival and is a hot market item no doubt. This one is a sleeper and real crowd pleaser.
Title: Hit Man
Festival: Venice Film Festival (Out of Competition)
Director: Richard Linklater
Screenwriters: Glen Powell and Richard Linklater
Cast: Glen Powell, Adria Arjona, Austin Amelio, Retta, Sanjay Rao, Molly Bernard, Evan Holtzman
Running time: 1 hr 53 min
Sales agents: AGC Studios (world); Cinetic Media/CAA (North America)
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