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Original caricature by Jeff York of actor Glen Powell in his roles as the killer “Rod” and school teacher Gary in HIT MAN. (copyright 2024)

Most of the films released so far this summer have undelivered, be it in terms of box office or quality, but HIT MAN is the first release that over-delivers. All but sneaking into your Netflix queue this weekend, the film is smart, well-acted, even better-written, and chock full of clever twists. It also may finally make Glen Powell the big star he deserves to be as he is quite sharp here from beginning to end.

Powell wears many hats in this production as he not only stars in it but cowrote it with director Richard Linklater (the BEFORE trilogy, BOYHOOD), plus he plays a character that assumes many personas as well. Based on a true story, Powell plays Gary Johnson, a college professor who moonlights with the police as a surveillance expert to make ends meet. One day, during a sting operation with cops Phil and Claudette (Sanjay Rao and Retta), Gary is forced to step in and take the place of Jasper (Austin Amelio), an undercover detective who’s just been suspended. Gary is forced to play the role of a hitman to catch a perp in a murder-for-hire scheme. Gary is so good at it that the amateur not only nails the bad guy, but the school teacher finds an inner tough guy he didn’t know existed. Gary, you see, is a bit of a nerd at the university with his oversized glasses and atrocious wardrobe. (He had to trade his jean shorts for Phil’s jeans beforehand he was able to  look like a convincing  killer.)

From there, Gary is asked to fill in more and more for Jasper, and with Phil and Claudette, they nail all kinds of folks wanting to kill their spouses. As Gary’s arrests grow, so do his acting skills. In a fun montage, we see him playing all kinds of tough guys, including a funny parody of Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman character in AMERICAN PSYCHO. It doubles as a chance for Powell to show off his skills too. He’s not just a cocky slice of beefcake, which is mostly what he’s been doing in films like HIDDEN FIGURES or TOP GUN, but a character actor at heart.

Then one day, Gary is asked to play a hit man to meet with a potential client wanting to off her husband and their meeting changes both their lives. Madison Figueroa Masters (Adria Arjona) has been beaten and verbally abused by her shit of a husband, and Gary, in his “Ron” hitman guise, takes pity on her. His instant attraction to Madison and her sympathetic story lead Gary to advise her to leave her husband, not kill him. His actions usurp the sting, but he’s definitely bitten by the love bug.

Of course, Gary ends up seeing Madison again, asking her out as “Ron,” and the more he sees her, the more he becomes his alter ego. This isn’t VICTOR/VICTORIA or MRS. DOUBTFIRE, however. Those two films played their ruses as farce. The romance here is played as an adult and serious relationship, even though it’s all based on a lie. Powell and Arjona are wonderful together as their scenes crackle with chemistry. Their characters truly are good for each other; and the more they fall in love, the more complications ensue.

No matter where you think this story may go as you’re watching, it doesn’t quite go that way and that makes this film all the stronger. In fact, at almost every turn, as the complications become thornier, Gary turns out to be much craftier than you’d expect him to be in response. The story turns into an increasingly sly, yet dangerous game of cat & mouse too as several adversaries come bucking for Gary.

To give away anything more would be (ahem) criminal, but suffice it to say, Linklater is smart to never let his material get treacly. Instead, the film is surprisingly dark and amoral at times as it examines the limits of relationships, deceit, and identity. Gary’s lessons at school underline what’s going on in the bigger story a bit too obviously at times, but indeed, the questions he asks his students about whether or not people can change their stripes is the driving question in this drama.

Powell owns it all, clearly loving his role as a nebbish who finds out that he’s a lot meaner and far more dangerous than he thought possible. And even more dramatic than that is Gary’s discovery that he prefers the harder, more dangerous person he becomes. That realization gives the movie a genuine, startling edge, making this film not only the best surprise of the summer season so far, but it guarantees the sleeper will find its way onto a lot of 10 Best Lists at the end of the movie year. Including mine.

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