Moving Pictures
Jun 11, 2024, 06:29AM

Don't Mess Around with the Guy in Shades

Richard Linklater's Hit Man shows that Glen Powell still has yet to become Glen Powell.

Adria arjona and glen powell in hit man.jpg.webp?ixlib=rails 2.1

Gary’s just a normal guy, or at least an anonymous one. A nerdy college professor with some cats, an ex-wife, and a penchant for observing people. He does have one secret, though: he works part-time to help run tech for police during sting operations. When the undercover posing as a hit man is thrown on administrative leave, it’s time for Gary to step into the driver's seat. To everyone’s surprise, maybe most of all Gary’s, he slips right into the role with ease. “That man is a natural,” says one of the observing officers.

Gary’s able to take on this hit man persona with the same nonchalance as Gary’s actor, Glen Powell, is able to play a charismatic doofus, the jock-type who you can’t help but find charming despite his narcissism. The only problem is that Gary, the base of Powell’s character in this would-be star-making film (Richard Linklater’s Hit Man), just feels like another costume that he dons to trick people into thinking he’s whatever kind of assassin their imaginations would conjure. Gary’s manipulative, trying to find what people would want out of him in order to get them to say the right thing into a wire. He meets his match, though, when he’s contracted by Madison (Adria Arjona), whom he can’t quite crack just by looking at her socials. Instead, he approaches her as a charmer named Ron, and something real inside of him slips out—he kind of likes her, and advises her against contracting a killer, much to the chagrin of the police running the entrapment operation. A twisted romantic comedy ensues, with the character of Ron bleeding into Gary, a man living a double life with a possibly dangerous woman. Life and love are on the line! It’s a classic setup for a fun, touching, and troubling film made for adults. But the problem persists: Glen Powell the star isn’t Gary, he’s Ron.

John Wayne didn’t become John Wayne overnight. John Ford saw something in the young college football player, but didn’t think he was ready for the big leagues. Ford advised Wayne to work in smaller pictures to get up to speed, and spent most of the 1930s in B-movies and back alley picture houses—virtually unknown to the masses, but honing his persona for when the big moment did come. And when it came (Stagecoach), it was an avalanche, a tidal wave that ripped apart the landscape and reshaped the geography of film forever. A gunshot fires off screen, the stagecoach stops. “Hold it!” The camera crashes into Wayne’s young face as he flicks around his rifle. It lingers on him in close-ups: this is our star, the next great American star. No other actor in history, save maybe Vivien Leigh debuting to the world as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind (also from 1939), has had such a momentous introduction. The film industry that exists now in America isn’t capable of this level of star creation—the push-ins that were once reserved for stars are given to superheroes instead. But what’s still important is that first meeting, that first impression.

Hit Man (2023) isn’t this movie for Glen Powell, nor could it be. The natural moment for his breakthrough would’ve been with his role in Top Gun: Maverick, which was ultimately denied to him (as I’ve written about before) by that film’s star (and Powell’s mentor) Tom Cruise refusing to relinquish his star power to a younger generation. Cruise’s denial of death also keeps people like Powell on a leash, and it tells them that the studio system is dead, and people would rather go and see the bodies kept young by countless drugs and doctors than the new ones because at least the dying are familiar to them. That’s not to say Powell lacks effort in pushing his career to stardom—he and Anyone But You (2023) Sydney Sweeney were deft in pushing for that film to have a reasonable theatrical window, earning almost 10 times its budget at the box office before becoming a staple on Netflix. That’ll do more for Powell’s star power than a festival run accompanied by a Netflix drop, which will quickly fade into the algorithm after sitting at #1 for a lowly weekend.

Perhaps this too is a shortcoming of Linklater as a filmmaker: unlike his 1990s peers Soderberg or Tarantino, he hasn’t been able to get close to the household name that those have achieved, except with the crowd that buys Criterion discs. Linklater has a cult. He may have made School of Rock (2003) and helped foster Mike White’s script that was meant to make a star out of Jack Black, but he did this as a journeyman. Linklater didn’t have the same success trying to turn Matthew McConaughey into the star he would eventually become with The Newton Boys (1998)—McConaughey had to go his own way for that. Perhaps Hit Man is a do-over on this for Linklater. Instead of taking the supporting stand-out from Dazed and Confused (1993), he grabs the one from Everybody Wants Some! (2016) and shows the world that “this guy has the stuff.” If that’s the intent, though (and considering Powell and Linklater co-wrote the script, I would be surprised if it wasn’t), then the premise is misguided. No matter how much fun it is to watch Powell and Arjona go back and forth, we aren’t actually conveyed the dynamic tension at the heart of the film because, again, Powell isn’t Gary, he’s Ron.

Maybe this is the point of the exercise—perhaps it’s a deconstruction of the character of stardom and actor’s narcissism and the psychopathy of building characters just to manipulate us to get the reactions they want. I think many critics would argue this is the case. But that ignores the material reason for this movie: it’s a showcase for Powell as a star. Linklater often tries to have it all when it comes to this ambivalent about art, entertainment, and the consequences of its creation (the long hotel room argument in Before Midnight [2013] is a great example of him directly confronting this), and it’s not always going to work. Hit Man has its moments as much as it shows the limitations of its exercise and the star it's trying to create: Powell has built the Ron persona, so we know he’s not really Gary. Unless that’s what they’re trying to tell us, in which case, the prospect of Powell’s empty eyes doesn’t make me think he’s the next big thing, but has learned all the wrong lessons from Cruise.


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