Sunday, June 16, 2024

Neo-Noir-Comedy Watch: Hit Man (2023)

Watched:  06/15/2024
Format:  Netflix
Viewing:  First
Director:  Richard Linklater

As a good Austinite, I feel extra pressure to watch Richard Linklater movies, and still miss half of them.  But this one took literally no effort to watch as I have Netflix thanks to my T-Mobile service.  

Reviews were initially pretty good for Hit Man (2023/24?), as near as I can tell.  But I think the wider audience response has been more mixed.  And I get it.  The movie feels like it has a bit of a genre pivot or thematic pivot half-way through, and that's a pretty good way to lose people.  Arguably, it goes from a sort of goofy comedy to a dark-comedy neo-noir.  And that turn in the middle is some YMMV territory.

The basic set up is that we have our public college prof (people keep saying Community College, but he seems more adjunct at a full university.  TERMS MEAN THINGS.), teaching philosophy and psychology.  But - He moonlights for the New Orleans PD making surveillance equipment for catching people who are trying to hire a hit man,  So, when the NOPD gets a tip someone is looking for a contract killer, they send in an undercover cop posing as a hit man.  

One day, the main undercover cop can't do his thing, so they (Retta!) send in the tech, Gary Johnson (Glen Powell).  Turns out he has a real knack for sliding into the role, and as he tries again and again, finds he can be the hit man to meet the profile of the contractee.  

However, eventually he comes across Madison, who is an abusive relationship and can't figure out how to get out - and rather than entrap her, as "Ron the contract killer", he gives her advice on how to walk away.  

On the down low, and as "Ron", Gary starts dating Madison, spinning fictions about his life - and it leads to complications.

This is never going to be my favorite movie, but I think it has some good things going for it.  

Loosely based on a true story, it's got that hook (it is very, verrrrry loosely based on a Texas Monthly story by famed writer Skip Hollandsworth).  Powell can use this as a reel to show his range, even playing a single character (who is playing many characters), and he is very good in this - which makes sense as he co-wrote the movie.  Fresh from Star Wars Andor and, uh, Morbius?, Adria Arjona plays the love interest, and, if I may, turns in the sexiest performance I've seen in a new movie in years.*  But she's also funny and fun.  Expect to see more of her.

The tone of the movie is Linklater light, not asking to be too serious even when things could be serious, and it is more a nice warm blanket than it is laugh-out-loud funny.


The pivot from "look at Glen Powell do bits" to "oh, now there's a story" does feel like a tonal change and it comes in hard.  Further, the movie doesn't paint anyone as a good person, which I suspect folks watching may struggling with a bit.  We expect our movie heroes to be Good People, and this movie's back 1/3rd has Madison kill her ex off-screen, and not seem to care much that she's done it.  And it has Gary go fully in-character as "Ron" and bump off someone we've seen on screen for the past 90 minutes, and we know he'll get away with it when he does.  And he just doesn't care.

American film noir was made under the eye of the Hayes Code, and so - no matter how dark things got - we knew that the movies would bend their way to Good People feeling safe at the end.  Neo-noir has played with this, but also mostly treated their endings as a tragedy or ironic twist rather than what this movie does, which is wink-and-a-nod as our protagonists go to town even as someone dies in the same room.  

In a movie already painted pretty dark despite the fact it's a comedy, this is by far the pitchiest of black - and given the sunny demeanor of much of the film, it's a pretty nutty moment.  It doesn't *bother* me, though.  Madison and Ron/ Gary have had a relationship to this point where, clearly, she was into what she thinks he is.  It's sex and death, even if she doesn't know he's fibbing.  And he likes being Ron, and Ron is a contract killer.  That scene just puts a button on it.

It was a pretty good punchline to see one of these where no one goes down in a hail of bullets or winds up in jail, wistfully thinking they have no regrets.

I admired how well Powell, Arjona and Linklater handle the scenes as things came to a head, and everyone knows different pieces, different people are hearing different things, and it's like The Conversation as a parlour game or something.   That bit was terrific (imho).  


I don't want to go on too long here - the movie isn't exactly The Third Man, but it's better than I figured.  It's good to see Linklater in this zone, still turning in off-beat stuff that can still appeal to a wide-ish audience.  And I certainly liked the entire cast (it's a reminder Retta should be in way more stuff).  

The mix in of psychology and philosophy is at a nice "core classes" undergrad level, and I intend to check in with my brother on it, who majored in both, long ago.  But I think it adds a layer to the movie beyond "oh, this guy is a nerd" that's worth listening to when in those scenes.

And, yeah, I don't know what to tell people who couldn't buy Powell as a professor because he's good looking and is absolutely ripped.  The instinct isn't wrong, and it's certainly one of those things we're dealing with in TV and film these days as everyone who isn't a "type" or character actor now looks like Captain America when they pop off their shirt.  (I also watched La Strada this weekend, and muscle-man Anthony Quinn looks anemic in comparison).    I won't tell actors to not be in shape, it's clearly what managers and agents are asking for.  

Anyhoo, glad I watched it.  Wish they'd been able to shoot it in Houston, but Texas stopped offering real shooting incentives here a while ago.

*I've recently been revisiting podcasts from the Fifty Shades era, and there's something to unpack some time - what works for who is watching, what is the thing that makes it work or makes it dull or uncomfortable... 


Steven said...

Just gonna say my set logic prof (before I dropped it because I was _not_ ready for that course), looked like he could tear phonebooks apart and knew the innards of several criticisms of DeMorgan and Russell. No slouch. Still at UT.

The League said...

Yeah, there's *always* an exception to the rule! Especially regarding stereotypes of what faculty are supposed to be like. I didn't have any profs who were muscle-bound, but I also would not be shocked if any of them mentioned "I do Kung-Fu after hours" because that's the kind of people faculty are.