Adria Arjona and Glen Powell in Hit Man


Over the course of 34 years and nearly two dozen features, Richard Linklater has routinely produced cinematic wonders that shouldn't succeed yet miraculously do: a plotless series of character vignettes assembled like an absurdist relay race; a trilogy of dialogue-heavy romantic two-handers separated by nine-year breaks; a coming-of-age drama in which the protagonists age 12 years – literally – in 165 minutes; not one but two legitimately awesome Jack Black comedies. Yet while I long ago stopped being surprised by the writer/director's ability to pull off the wildly improbable, if not seemingly impossible, it wasn't until his new-to-Netflix Hit Man that I imagined Linklater capable of a first-rate blend of Double Indemnity, Crimes & Misdemeanors, and Tootsie. I didn't think anyone was capable of that.

With an opening title card informing us that “What you're about to see is a somewhat true story,” Linklater's latest introduces us to Gary Johnson (the film's co-writer Glen Powell), a psychology and philosophy professor at the University of New Orleans. Gary is a nerd, and one so brazen about it that when he exclaims his support for Nietzsche's directive to “live dangerously,” a student can't help but mutter, “Says the guy driving the Civic.” But while Gary's Honda, haircut, clothes, hobbies, and single life as a suburban cat(s) owner all signify “loser,” he does have a cool side gig, his technical expertise having netted him a part-time job working sting operations for the New Orleans Police Department. Serving as backup for an undercover team that arrests citizens who'll pay to have someone killed, Gary is roped into posing as one of the busts' hired killers, and is nothing but nervous as he enters a diner to meet his first mark. A thug in sleeveless flannel with bulging arm veins and a ponytail, this guy looks like he could eat Gary for breakfast. But when this threatening dupe asks Gary how long he's been murder-for-hire and our professor spits out “That's none of your f---ing business,” the thug is taken aback, and marvels as Gary describes, with abject authority, exactly how he'll execute his assigned victim and dispose of the body. Listening in a van outside, Gary's NOPD associates are dumbfounded. So are we. So is Gary. Turns out he's really good at this fake-hit-man thing.

Let me point out that this unimprovable comic scene – so funny, so unexpected, so detailed – arrives before Linklater's movie is even 10 minutes old. In the time in which most films would still be acquainting us with our central character, we already know Gary so well, or presume we do, that his instantaneous transformation from brainy dork to bad-ass lands as a revelatory shock. It also kicks off Hit Man's joyous screwball nature as Gary, digging deeper and deeper into his role, assumes one elaborate disguise after another, his psychology and philosophy degrees allowing him to fashion particular assassins for particular “clients.” Before long, Gary has a full collection of wigs, false teeth, eyewear, and accents at his disposal, and his conviction rate puts that of his NOPD predecessor Jasper (Austin Amelio) to shame. Things are going swimmingly for Gary until our faux assassin does research on his new mark – the unhappily married Madison (Adria Arjona) – and can't determine what kind of executioner this beautiful woman with sad eyes might take to. He meets her at their designated rendezvous point, in character, as “Ron,” his slicked-back hair, beard stubble, and aviators suggesting a prom-king quarterback 15 years after graduation. (He also suggests Powell's scene-stealing Hangman from Top Gun: Maverick.) Madison is shy and nervous. Ron is ultra-confident. And it's at this point, a half-hour in, that Hit Man morphs from a juicy entertainment to an utterly magical one.

Adria Arjona and Glen Powell in Hit Man

You could hardly call Gary's and Madison's initial encounter a date, as she shows up with an envelope of cash in hopes of having her evidently abusive spouse murdered. But if someone were to compose a list of cinema's all-time finest first dates, I would happily argue for this scene's inclusion, because Gary and Madison, and Powell and Arjona, are stunning together. Less than a minute after their introduction, as Madison's reticence abates, she's hungrily diving into Gary's slice of pie, and the two go on to make genial cats-versus-dogs small talk and laugh at silly jokes and reach an honest, heartfelt place of mutual affection – it's like a miniaturized version of one of Linklater's Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight pictures. Madison attempts to pay Gary for his future service but he gently, tactfully convinces her to reconsider, saying that the money would be better spent on Madison starting a new life with no corpses involved. He also tells her that she has his number. Not long afterward, she calls him, now single and happy, and the two embark on a passionate romance. Trouble is, Madison thinks she's dating professional killer “Ron,” and Gary knows he's dating someone who would at least consider paying to have her husband killed. That's when Madison's ex shows up.

That's also where my discussion of the narrative stops, because Hit Man is so chockablock with inventive twists, unanticipated detours, and hilarious, fiendishly well-constructed set pieces that saying more would inevitably spoil the experience. It's somewhat heartbreaking to see the movie debut (after a very limited theatrical run) on Netflix when sharing it with a big, invested cineplex crowd would've undoubtedly been more fun. Having said that, I won't deny the appeal of convenience. It's been a kick to watch Linklater's genre-hugging delight three times over the course of two days, and as always happens with great movies, I'm becoming more enraptured with this one each time I see it.

Some of Hit Man's pleasures just flat-out work. As Gary's undercover partners Claudette and Phil, who have been flooded with more personality than such roles usually inspire, Retta and Sanjay Rao are a tag-team riot, especially when performing verbal one-upmanship over which of them is hotter for “Ron” … and Phil isn't gay. (In maybe the wittiest of the film's pop-culture mentions, Claudette calls Gary's creation “a Caucasian Idris.”) Linklater's and Powell's script also features dozens of perfectly shaped, beautifully observed sequences: a lovely, friendly, thematically on-point lunch between Gary and his ex-wife Alicia (Molly Bernard); a charming, flirtatious re-acquaintance at a pet-adoption event; a pair of courtroom scenes in which defense lawyers cite Gary as the true psychopath who should stand trial. (They make fair points.) Even Gary's occasional voice-over narration and interruptions are kind of priceless, and those things rarely are.

Glen Powell in Hit Man

Yet I'm finding that repeat viewings, at this early stage, enhance the movie's thematic richness, with Gary's classroom discussions on the natures of identity and justice, and whether human beings are truly capable of change, cleverly mirrored in the plotting. Much of Hit Man is devoted to the question of whether you can ever actually be the person you wish you were, and in one brilliantly high-comic scene in the film's second half, Gary discovers that the answer may be “no.” Because we'd all rather that answer wasn't “no,” we keep trying anyway, and as with most of Linklater's achievements, his latest locates the profundity in that quest – in wanting to be, or not be, what others see you as. Both Gary and Madison have moments here in which they act out of character, to their detriment, based on what each thinks the other wants. It's only when acting on behalf of themselves, “living dangerously” per Nietzsche, that they're able to truly find, and be at peace with, each other.

But this is likely making Hit Man sound like homework when it's more accurately a rip-roaring party, and in Powell and Arjona, you couldn't ask for more appealing hosts. The latter is really something. An exceptionally skilled, sensual comedian who can turn from empathetic to outrageous on a dime, Arjona delivers a breakout performance as noteworthy as those given by Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny and Maria Bakalova in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm. (She should be similarly awarded for her efforts.) Yet she's also an outstanding femme fatale, and a huge part of the film's allure comes from not knowing whether Madison is an innocent or is playing Gary for a sap. Not for nothing does Arjona's most delicious line reading come from Madison saying, “I don't know how to pretend.”

Meanwhile, following his charismatic turns in Maverick and Anyone but You, this release should cement Powell's star status, because the actor is almost jaw-droppingly good here, and better yet, he seems to be having the time of his life. Being paired with Arjona no doubt kept his spirits high, as did working with his longtime friend Linklater, who cast Powell in Fast Food Nation and Everybody Wants Some!! But the joie de vivre that the man exudes is unquestionably that of someone knowing, and registering, that he's landed the role of a lifetime (to date) and intends to play it for all it's worth. Powell sure as hell does, and his overall excellence is augmented by deliriously goofy fringe touches in his coterie of assassins: curling his lip and speaking in a heavy Eastern European dialect for one; channeling Tilda Swinton for another. For the entirety of its nearly two hours, Hit Man is an absolute blast. It might also prove to be a dubious one. Early in the film, Gary's voice-over informs us that real-world hit men don't exist. Considering how funny, sexy, and exciting Powell makes the job look, might a whole generation of fans be compelled to turn this nonexistent career into a booming industry?

Will Smith and Martin Lawrence in Bad Boys: Ride or Die


Twenty-nine years into their franchise, Will Smith and Martin Lawrence would have every understandable reason to spend most of their screen time muttering variants on Danny Glover's famed Lethal Weapon catchphrase: “I'm gettin' too old for this shit.” Yet in Bad Boys: Ride or Die, the stars' playful chemistry and obvious enthusiasm for even the movie's silliest gambits suggest that, if anything, they're just getting warmed up.

Apparently, I am, too – or rather, I'm finally warming up to this series in general. I couldn't stomach the films when they were being Michael Bay-ed to death in 1995's original and 2003's Bad Boys II. But the arrival of directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah – working under the conjoined moniker Adil & Bilall – in 2020's Bad Boys for Life gave the proceedings a welcome lightness of spirit; the action nonsense was still grimly exhausting, but at least the jokes landed. They generally land here, too, and while I found most of this third sequel exhausting, at least I knew I was always one sardonic retort or Reba McEntire needle drop away from smiling again.

Will Smith and Martin Lawrence in Bad Boys: Ride or Die

In this latest Miami-set adventure, Smith's and Lawrence's detective lieutenants Mike Lowrey and Marcus Burnett have to clear the name of their deceased captain (Joe Pantoliano, who happily shows up in a “beyond the grave” cameo) when he's posthumously implicated in a drug scandal. Soon enough, Mike and Marcus themselves are on the run from the law, and with Mike's son Armando (Jacob Scipio), who was convicted and imprisoned for Captain's Howard, in tow. Some other stuff happens, none of it particularly meaningful: Mike marries his physical therapist (Melanie Liburd); Marcus' near-death experience leads to him believing himself invincible; Captain Howard's U.S. Marshal daughter (Rhea Seehorn, giving a fiercer portrayal than required) vows revenge for her dad's death. We're really only here to watch Smith and Lawrence do their thing, and whenever Chris Bremner's and Will Beall's script allows them to be jovial and relaxed, that thing is pretty terrific.

I doubt I'll remember much of Ride or Die after a few more days, as the pricey action choreography and chase sequences are routine, the theoretical emotional payoffs have no resonance, and head villain Eric Dane isn't so much a baddie as a bland-ie for the ages. Still, Lawrence is clearly having a ball getting to play Movie Star again, Smith delivers a deeply necessary reminder that he can be a crackerjack comic even when his material fails him, and the pair bicker and bond with such naturalistic ease that they and their directors manage to make the whole experience inoffensive, and even occasionally enjoyable. For the curious, I should also mention that this new Bad Boys offers a sub-plot in which Mike begins suffering panic attacks, which leads to the inevitable scene of Will Smith getting slapped. A lot. Even though the bit is genuinely funny, and certainly satisfying on a number of levels, you'll likely see that first blow coming from a mile away. Too bad Chris Rock couldn't say the same.

Dakota Fanning in The Watchers


I've read interviews with her, and I've seen photos of her, so I'm sure she exists. Had I not, though, I might easily have sat through The Watchers convinced that credited writer/director Ishana Night Shymalan was just a lazy pseudonym for “M. Night Shymalan,” because wow did this apple not fall far from the tree. It's not just that Ishana is working in the same supernatural-horror-with-a-twist genre that her dad made his name on. It's that Ishana, in her feature-film debut, appears to possess the exact same strengths and failings as her pop; the only thing separating this half-baked thriller from one of her father's half-baked thrillers is that M. Night doesn't make a cameo here. Or maybe he does during the end credits. The moment those things started rolling, I gratefully headed out the door.

As with nearly all of M. Night's outings, there's a solid performance at its center, this one given by Dakota Fanning as a depressed American living in Ireland. Tasked with delivering a rare bird across the country, Fanning's pet-shop employee Mina finds her car breaking down outside a forest, and after getting properly lost in the woods, she lands in a mysterious domicile alongside a trio of loners (Olwen Fouéré, Georgina Campbell, and Oliver Finnegan) who have apparently been there for months. Through a one-way mirror, the edifice's trapped humans, Mina now among them, are routinely watched, as though they were zoo animals, by growling, shrieking creatures that none of them have ever seen, and that only come out at night. But why are they being studied? And by what? And will the inevitable twist be worth caring about?

Olwen Fouéré, Oliver Finnegan, Georgina Campbell, and Dakota Fanning in The Watchers

To address that last question: Not really, though there's some moderate interest to be had in the anticipation. Adapting A.M. Shine's 2022 novel, Ishana, like her dad, is on reasonably solid ground with her scenes of apprehension and dread. The edgy sound effects, sometimes faraway and sometimes punishingly loud, do a fine job of evincing monsters without our having (or needing) to see them, and The Watchers' director proves expert in her employment of mirrored images. There's one sustained shot, familiar from the trailers, in which Mina approaches her reflection in order to more effectively hear the beings outside, and every time I've seen it, there's something not quite right about the eerie composition. It almost looks as though it's not a reflection at all, but rather Dakota Fanning performing the acting-class “mirror exercise” opposite her doppelgänger, and it's chilling as all-get-out. Visually, Ishana's film is impressive. It's when characters speak, and the twists are made manifest, that you want to bolt the auditorium. Does that sound like the works of any other Shymalan you know?

Without indulging in spoilers, I will say that the über-complicated narrative design behind the Watchers' master plan veers refreshingly away from traditional Hollywood monstrosities and indulges more in the realm of mythological figures, which is at least a genre change of pace, even if the climactic effects leave loads to be desired. But everything that's debilitatingly wrong with Ishana's movie is pure M. Night-style debilitation: one-dimensional characters; plot holes by the truckload; unbridled portentousness masquerading as high drama (resulting in Fouéré giving an almost classically terrible performance as the most portentous of the bunch); and some of the worst dialogue heard in a fright flick since … . Well, since last weekend's In a Violent Nature. Most obnoxious of all is the movie's incessant, verbalized, world-building need to turn itself into a dictionary. Regarding the unseen beasts: “We call them 'The Watchers.'” Regarding their prison: “We call it 'The Coop.'” Regarding the Coop's creator: “We call him 'The Professor.'” I didn't care for The Watchers. But I sure can define it.

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