We’ve missed Richard Linklater. Whether he’s in throwaway comedy mode or making something more contemplative, he’s always gone his own distinctive way, even if his more recent efforts have been more low key. Last year’s charming animation, Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood, was tucked away on Netflix but hinted that a return to form was perhaps on the way. At last, it’s arrived at LFF, and could easily prove to be the festival’s number one crowd-pleaser. A glorious mash-up of noir, crime and romcom by the name of Hit Man.
It’s based on a cheerfully bizarre true story, that of Gary Johnson (Glen Powell), a bland-to-boring college professor with a colourful secret life: as a police liaison officer he finds himself going undercover to pose as a series of hit men. And he’s astonishingly good at it. His eye for detail means each one of them is a character in their own right, complete with make-up, false teeth, different accents and whatever else it takes, and the unfortunate sap aiming to pay for his services always ends up in the dock. Until one would-be client falls for his latest creation, he reciprocates (as the hit man, of course) and finds that not only is his double life more complicated than it used to be, but she’s just as sharp and duplicitous as he is.
Linklater is at his engaging, freewheeling best with a story that gives him free rein to celebrate human eccentricity and contradiction, one that he co-wrote with lead actor Powell on what is their third project together. Full of laugh-out loud scenes and the sheer joy of Powell in his various, and often ludicrous, disguises it moves along at a brisk pace, making you long for the next creation. The spirit of Kind Hearts And Coronets is never too far away. And, as he starts to play one “hit man” more than any other, the lines between reality and invention are increasingly blurred. What comes next isn’t hugely surprising, but is so gleefully entertaining that the grin on your face never has enough time to fade.
Crisp comic timing – especially from Powell – coupled with his delicious on-screen partnership with Adria Arjona, parodies of familiar set-ups and characters such as femmes fatales, crooked cops and false identities all come together for a ride that not only sees Linklater back on form, but also gives Powell the star-making turn that we all knew was coming after Top Gun: Maverick. He’s genuinely funny, at turns smooth and bewildered and never averse to a catch phrase or two – “all pie is good pie” is his favourite. And, as his secret persona starts to spill over into his teaching job, you can’t blame one of his students for asking “how come we never noticed our lecturer was so hot?” No apologies for the pun. It’s a hit – and a big one.
Comedy| London Film Festival, 6 and 11 October 2023. Netflix, date tbc | Netflix | Certificate: tbc | Dir. Richard Linklater | Glen Powell, Adria Arjona, Retta, Austin Amelio.