Hit Man: A Masterful Blend of Comedy and Noir | Review

A sensational film that uncovers the classic within the contemporary, reveals cinephilia in the imagination, and finds the ordinary in the extraordinary. A masterful screenplay, Richard Linklater and Glen Powell are in top form.
Hit Man (2023)


Hit Man (2023)
Directed by Richard Linklater

Every film is a debut, following in the footsteps of Jonathan Demme, a master whom Richard Linklater, if not his heir, remains a magnificent follower: he has adopted his versatility and dynamism, curiosity and coherence, the ability to transform and a linear path, in search of lost cinema to restore it for those who come after. Hit Man (distributed by BIM, at Venice 80 it was Out of Competition but deserved to compete for a prize) comes from afar, uncovers the classic in the contemporary, reveals cinephilia in the imagination, finds the ordinary in the extraordinary, and offers nostalgia the chance to become the future.

From an article by Skip Hollandsworth published in Texas Monthly (the same sources as the disturbing and ironic Bernie, a black pearl by the director), an instant classic that strongly believes in cinema, where the protagonist is both a function of the story and a tool for theoretical reflection. He has a mundane name, Gary Johnson, and is an odd type, little if not at all charismatic: he lives in New Orleans, is separated but has a great relationship with his now pregnant ex-wife, teaches psychology and philosophy at the university, has a forgettable face, wears inconspicuous clothes, takes care of cats (named Es and Ego), has a passion for birds, and works part-time for the police.

He explains it to us without beating around the bush, with an almost naïve tone, the same one he uses to recount the turning point in his life: he is tasked with replacing an oddball, known for racist and violent behavior and thus dismissed, whose job is to pose as a professional killer. The scheme is as simple as it is dangerous: a client contacts Gary to kill someone and, at the moment of payment, falls into the police trap. Being the nerd he is, our hero studies the personalities of the clients: he transforms – in speech, body language, aesthetics – so they can fully trust him, becoming the most sought-after hitman around.

Already here, Linklater – with the help of the narrating voice that literally indicates the thematic track – ponders the figure of the hitman as a cinematic function that has no real-world convergence: through a rather dizzying montage of famous scenes (with trusted editor Sandra Adair, whose thirty-year partnership with the director has produced miracles like the Before trilogy and Boyhood), Linklater dismantles and examines the iconography shaped by the big screen, which portrays the hitman as icy and ruthless, to deny its positioning in reality and reconfigure it in a character “in progress,” who believes himself crystallized in an image without thrills and is instead overwhelmed by the infinite – and surprising – possibilities of his personality.

Hit Man is the story of a man who realizes he can be other than himself, starting from the moment he breaks protocol to help the Puerto Rican Maddy, a desperate woman fleeing from a violent boyfriend. For her, he becomes the sexy Ron, a dark and gentle killer who becomes an alternative version of Gary, an unexpected extension and a natural completion: what is the boundary between reality and fiction? How can one bring the best of one into the other? How to distinguish the mask from the face?

Quintessentially indie and joyfully out of time, light and never frivolous, Hit Man transcends the biopic to free the story from biographical data: like Gary, the film shifts from the fun of comedy to the rhythm of action, adopts the romantic side and crosses the thriller with a noir backdrop to remind us of the context, ventures into less accommodating humor and does not shy away from melancholic moments. It is not an intellectual game where the structure reflects the character, but a sensational film, supported by a masterful screenplay for its perfect narrative construction and irresistible precision of dialogues (Billy Wilder would have been pleased), written by Linklater with Glen Powell.

An actor – also a producer, three-in-one – already in the director’s circle – both are Texans – since an underrated and magnificent film like Everybody Wants Some!!, here Powell is frankly memorable, believable in every disguise (including that of a nerd: it is not easy for a sex symbol to be credible as a geek without resorting to tricks and gimmicks), completely aware of the role tailored for him and also of the importance of such a film in his career. It is somewhat the ultimate proof of his star power: chronologically it follows Top Gun: Maverick, but due to distribution reasons, it comes after the unexpected success of Anyone But You that made him a king of commercial comedy capable of rejuvenating the Hollywood scene (this is a decisive moment for the sector, see the rises of millennials Timothée Chalamet, Zendaya, Jeremy Allen White, and Sydney Sweeney). Powell leads a perfectly tuned cast, including the alluring Adria Arjona, stand-up comedian Retta, and Austin Amelio as a crazy cop. In American cinema, Linklater confirms a dual belonging: that to the state of Texas and that to a state of grace.

Lorenzo Ciofani

Cinematografo, September 5, 2023


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