Saturday 25 May 2024

Top gun maverick: "Hit Man"

What we're dealing with here is a clear divergence of sensibilities. When David Fincher made a hitman movie for Netflix - last year's
The Killer - he centred it on a depressive loner weirdo who kept banging on about techie shit, and didn't much care whether we warmed to him or not. Richard Linklater, for his part, keeps on keeping on: his Netflix hitman movie centres on a total sweetheart for whom even premeditated murder is only ever a means to a meet-cute. Hit Man emerges from the same strange-but-true file as Linklater's 2011 film Bernie - the journalist Skip Hollandsworth takes another prominent story credit - in riffing on the diverse life and work of one Gary Johnson, a New Orleans high-school teacher who, in the course of providing part-time tech support for the city's police force, was recruited to pass as a contract killer during an undercover sting operation, and wound up massively overstepping his jurisdiction. (The real Johnson died in 2022, which to some degree explains the dramatic licence that has been taken; Linklater sportingly cops to this amid the closing credits.) 

As a movie character, Johnson presents as a streamlined version of Jack Black's enthusiastic amateur in School of RockEmbodied by the chiselled Glen Powell, cockiest of Top Gun: Maverick's new-wave flyboys, he seems as surprised as anyone when he displays some facility for this after-hours sidehustle. The movie's first half-hour whizzes us through the sorry shower of blue-collar suckers Johnson's alter ego "Roy" helped put behind bars; but this being a mainstream entertainment, and a Linklater film, what Hit Man is most interested in is how this spin-off character helped Gary Johnson fill the pronounced void in his personal life, and it broaches the subject via the introduction of a married sylph (Adria Arjona) who approaches Roy with an eye to getting her abusive husband offed. We know this is something new because her gifts for roleplay are shown to match his, during the pair's first encounter; seasoned Linklater fans will recall Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy's dorkily cute imagined phone calls to one another in Before Sunrise. Gary-as-Roy is duly beguiled to pursue the role (while refusing the dame's blood money) to see where this leads, and whether he can't just take the husband out of the picture by conventional romantic-sexual means. The result is as good a definition of what we might call Linklaterism as any: a film in which a hit man never once pulls the trigger in the interests of shooting his shot.

It is also, and the early reviews have noted as much, the kind of proficient light entertainment Hollywood used to trade in before the fall: a well-turned script with decent actors assigned to it. (Believe it or not, kids, there was a time when we got one or two of these per week.) Hit Man is perhaps most effective as a starmaking vehicle for Powell, who gets to try on personas and thereby seduce us as Gary-as-Roy did his clients. The wigs and costume changes required to convert this nerdy, Honda Civic-driving civics teacher into a pistol-packing renegade are only one part of the actor's artillery, which otherwise extends to a jawline it may be impossible to photograph badly, a smile as shy as it is sharkish (one early appraisal: here is the Tom Cruise who can still do humility), and self-aware line readings, tipping us the wink that this is an actor playing the role of a nobody playing a series of roles. Powell, who co-wrote this script with Linklater, knows exactly what he's up to: he's conceived Gary Johnson as a knight in shining armour, outnumbered by men in the grip of a murderous misogyny. An increasingly brusque rivalry with a disgraced stationhouse colleague (Austin Amelio) is the film pitting the McConaughey of, say, A Time to Kill against the McConaughey of True Detective, figures who represent our better and worse selves. 

Diverting though much of this is, Hit Man can't entirely disguise its limitations, which struck me as closely tied to its maker's personality. Framing this as Linklater's sexiest film, as several first responders have, feels a bit like slapping a Parental Advisory sticker on a Rick Astley album. (Some no-nipple bath-and-bedroom activity further underlines how sorely sex-starved the American cinema remains, even when a noir-adjacent plot allows for some.) The mild feeling of narrative anticlimax the film leaves us with, meanwhile, is down to the lack of a third gear behind the camera. As written, this plot develops nicely - the husband hires Roy to kill his wife, then ends up dead himself - but at a crucial point, just where matters might intensify and accelerate, Linklater cuts away to Gary-as-Gary guiding his teenage charges through the quirks of the legal system in a sundappled park. Even when he's not specifically looking for teachable moments, Linklater tends to shrug amiably through fraught conversation and mortal fallout, going not for tension or suspense - as Fincher, for instance, would - but for goofy laughs instead. (There's a big one, granted: just how quickly Gary Johnson's imposture falls apart when confronted.) As a consequence, Hit Man has everything in its favour except a certain oomph. As a comedy, it's collegial and likable, qualities we shouldn't undervalue in this day and age; but - and it doesn't matter how Netflix sell it - it's also very much a thriller in a Honda Civic. We cannot hide our true natures from the world, though there's a certain fun to be had in dressing them up.

Hit Man is now showing in selected cinemas, and will be available to stream via Netflix on June 7.

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