Hit Man at the Venice Film Festival review: Richard Linklater’s sexy, screwball murder comedy is a gem

Adria Arjona and Glen Powell in Hit Man ( )
Adria Arjona and Glen Powell in Hit Man ( )

The Venice Film Festival is churning out assassins at a rate that would put Henry Ford to shame. But if you think you’re going to be watching a movie about a lone killer for hire, in a similar vein to David Fincher’s The Killer, then you will be disappointed. Or you would be, if Richard Linklater’s Hit Man (screening here out of competition) weren’t such a hugely entertaining film.

Linklater plays fast and loose with the real-life story of Gary Johnson, a Texan investigator who worked as an undercover agent for the police. Posing as a hitman, Johnson’s work led to more than sixty arrests. Here, the director transposes the action from Texas to New Orleans, a city that – cinematically, at least – usually denotes either crime or sex or a hot combination of the two (The Big Easy, Bad Lieutenant, Queen & Slim... the list is long). At first, it looks as though Linklater is only going to give us the former, but when a femme fatale comes into the picture, it’s clear the latter will quickly be in the mix.

Johnson is played by Glen Powell (most recently of Top Gun: Maverick fame) and he gives a tour de force performance as the university psychology and philosophy professor-turned-fake gun for hire. Initially, Johnson seems like a perfectly affable, ordinary and easily forgettable man. With his comfy denim Bermudas (“so airy”), bad haircut and wire-rimmed specs, not to mention his cats Ego and Id who share his immaculate home, this mild-mannered prof sure doesn’t scream “killer” – well, serial killer maybe, hitman certainly not. But when Johnson has to replace disgraced colleague Jasper (Austin Amelio) as the fake hitman, he takes to it like a duck to water.

Never having had the nerve to do drama at college, Johnson embraces the chance to take on new personas, one of which is Ron. Ron is everything Gary is not: sexy, dashing, dangerous and fearless. Everyone fancies Ron, even his two co-workers (lovely performances by Sanjay Rao and Retta) who listen in on the police wiretaps. When Ron meets Madison (Adria Arjona), the attraction is immediate, the film heats up and Gary’s life gets a whole lot more complicated.

Powell co-wrote the screenplay with Linklater and it is a cracker. An intelligent comedy that contains plenty of laugh-out-loud moments and references Kant and Nietzsche, it is also a thriller that is darker than it first appears. However, the writers combine this darkness with classic farce with such dexterity that you find yourself laughing at some pretty inappropriate scenes.

Hit Man is reminiscent of old-school comedies such as Arsenic and Old Lace or Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, which dabbled in the macabre without letting up on the humour. The two leads are sexy and likeable, and it is a pleasure spending time in their company. Coming in at 113 minutes, the film feels shorter, such is the fun served up by Linklater and his leading man. Get yourself to a cinema for this one – it is a gem.