Hit Man is a Thrilling and Hilarious Exploration of Selfhood

Richard Linklater has made a career of making movies brimming with endearing characters that we would love to be able to spend time hanging out with and then letting us do just that. Almost regardless of the premise, his movies consist of scene after scene of wonderfully written characters speaking in effortlessly witty and delightful dialog, and Hit Man puts a fun new twist on that style. Hit Man is equal parts breezy and thrilling, thoughtful and funny, and its exploration of selfhood and human nature is powerful without ever getting overly heady. The plot is loose enough to allow the characters space to breathe, and tight enough to keep the audience engaged and guessing.

Hit Man is extremely loosely based on the real-life Gary Johnson, who was a man who posed as a hit man for the Huston police department during the ‘80s and ‘90s. Powell and Linklater wrote the script together and clearly leaned into Powell’s strengths as an actor. The result never feels like a vanity project, but serves as a fantastic showpiece of his versatility and charisma. After watching this movie, it’s easy to imagine him leading any number of movies in any number of genres.

The film stars Glen Powell and Adria Arjona as Gary Johnson and Maddy Masters respectively, both turning in performances that should solidify them as movie stars. Gary is an intelligent and thoughtful, but somewhat dull professor of psychology and philosophy at the University of New Orleans, who earns extra money moonlighting with the local police department as an assistant, helping with undercover sting operations focusing on apprehending people who are shopping for contract killers to make their lives easier by killing someone for them.

The two leads of Hit Man looking at one another while pressed up to one another.

When circumstances force Gary to go from assisting to taking the role of a hit man during an operation, it turns out that he’s a natural at it. His interest in human nature predisposes him to effectively understanding what his would-be clients would want to see in a hit man, and then becoming that person, which puts them at ease and pushes them to make the deal—and once they clearly communicate a desire to pay him to murder someone, the police rush in to arrest them. The joy he takes in these performances is extraordinary and infectious—this is a man who has finally found a way to break out of the box that he otherwise lives within.

Eventually, he is assigned to a sting involving Arjona’s Maddy, who plays a housewife in an abusive relationship. Their chemistry is immediately apparent, and while Gary is playing the part of a hit man, the electricity that sparks as they talk cannot be faked. As Maddy explains her life with her controlling husband, Gary sympathizes with her so much that he stops her just short of incriminating herself and convinces her to take a different path, to take the money and use it to start a new life away from her husband. She takes his advice, much to the annoyance of Garry’s colleagues who consider Maddy a would-be killer, and a continued threat to her husband.

The persona that he created for this sting was a hit man named “Ron,” and Ron is exactly who Gary isn’t: cool and sexy. When Gary as Ron meets up with the newly divorced Maddy again later, he continues the façade around her as they quickly build an intensely sexual relationship. It’s obviously immoral to pretend to be somebody that you’re not in order to begin a sexual relationship with another person, but we want their relationship to blossom because it is so damn entertaining to watch these people together, and it’s equally entertaining to watch Gary discover aspects of himself through Ron. And who hasn’t pretended to be someone we’re not to some extent—someone a little more confident, a little more interesting than we usually are—in order to impress someone we like? The moral complexity of Gary’s situation makes it somewhat difficult to know what and who we’re supposed to root for at times, and that complexity is one of the things that makes this movie work so well.

a close up of Adria Arjona in Hit Man, looking offscreen.

Within this charming tale of deception are various philosophical musings about the nature of the Self, which help drive the themes of Selfhood (Gary is a philosophy professor, after all). This could easily feel ham-fisted in a lesser film by a less intelligent filmmaker, but here those concepts are not only eloquently explored by intelligent characters in engaging conversations and class lectures, they are also motivating factors for Gary. His interest in the mutability of the self guides his class, but it also directly causes him to make almost every decision that he makes in the film.

While at first this looks like a light-hearted, breezy Linklater comedy (and it is those things), the moral and philosophical depth of the story, and the charm and intelligence of its characters, make this a more nuanced movie than that would suggest. The moral gray waters that our heroes find themselves in become increasingly murky, and by the time they’ve crossed over into the darkest of waters, we want them to keep swimming, repercussions be damned. A lesser movie would have opted for an easy, moralizing finale to keep things simple and straightforward for the audience, but this movie is reminiscent of classic noirs in that it takes the audience to some fairly dark places, and we’re happy to go along.

Did I mention that this is a comedy? Hit Man moves back and forth between genre territories easily and smoothly, and each tone reinforces the others. When it’s a morally ambiguous neo-noir, that makes the breezily hilarious comedy moments all that much funnier, and in turn the tense, thrilling moments feel heightened by the hilarity of other moments. The ways that its central stars handle the demands of a constantly shifting narrative is awe-inspiring; it’s been a long time since I saw a movie and truly felt like I’m witnessing bonafide movie stars being born before my eyes.

A close up shot of Glen Powell in Hit Man

The performances by Powell and Arjona create the center of gravity for this film, and they are allowed to be movie stars in a way that feels almost foreign in modern movies. And this is the rare modern Hollywood movie that is incredibly sexy, with genuine chemistry between its leads—every scene between Powell and Arjona vibrates with electricity. While Powell has more to do on paper (he gets to play multiple kinds of hit men, donning entirely different expressions, accents, and postures, each with very fun costume variations), Arjona holds her own, also being a slightly different version of herself depending on what Gary/Ron needs her to be.

We live in a world that consistently pushes us to define ourselves in various surface-level ways. Are you a cat person or a dog person? What is your profession? What kind of car do you drive? Do you prefer pie or cake? This movie asks us to consider how important the answers to those questions really are in defining ourselves, and it asks us to consider what, if anything, our true self consists of that cannot be changed. What is our capacity to change who we are? What are the limits that we put on ourselves? Kurt Vonnegut once said “We are what we pretend to be,” and this movie asks us whether or not we can pretend to be something that we weren’t already.

Written by Dustin Roberts

I teach literature in a swamp. When I'm not doing that, I'm probably picking dog hair off of my clothing.

You can find me on Bluesky at

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