Producers: Mike Blizzard, Richard Linklater, Glen Powell, Jason Bateman and Michael Costigan  Director: Richard Linklater  Screenplay: Richard Linklater and Glen Powell   Cast: Glen Powell, Adria Arjona, Austin Amelio, Retta, Sanjay Rao, Molly Bernard, Evan Holtzman, Gralen Bryant Banks, Mike Markoff, Bryant Carroll, Morgana Shaw, Kate Adair, Martin Bats Bradford, Ritchie Montgomery, Jo-Ann Robinson, Jonas Lerway and Richard Robichaux    Distributor: Netflix

Grade: B+

Richard Linklater’s engagingly offbeat rom-com “Hit Man” serves as a nifty companion piece to his macabre 2012 comedy “Bernie.”  Both are based on real people who were profiled by Skip Hollandsworth in compulsively readable “Texas Monthly” articles.  Both spotlight virtuoso lead turns, the earlier film by Jack Black and this one by Glen Powell, who also co-wrote the script.  And both showcase the director’s consummate skill in featuring an array of wonderfully quirky characters in small roles.

But there’s one big difference: Bernie Tiede was definitely on the wrong side of the law; Gary Johnson is working for the police, at least—in this telling—until he’s not.

Johnson, a Vietnam veteran who died in 2022, was a sometime college instructor and investigator in the Houston DA’s office when he was called on to impersonate a hit man when the office received a tip about a woman looking to hire a contract killer.  He proved so adept at the job that he went on to score over sixty arrests in the guise. 

Linklater and Powell seize on the premise, and embellish it to great effect.  They employ incidentals from Johnson’s life—his background in psychology and love of animals (his cats were, as here, named Id and Ego, for example). And he did use “All pie is good pie” as a catch phrase for clients to recognize him. But they take some to comic extremes, like his habit of donning modest disguises to suit the expectations of possible customers, which in their hands becomes fashioning a full-fledged parade of new personas, from a dead ringer for Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman in one instance to a cold-blooded European super-villain and a hayseed skeet-shooter in others.  These mini-cadenzas are great for Powell. of course—he runs with each of them—but they also provide Linklater with the opportunity to present a colorful array of potential purchasers of Johnson’s services, from Mike Markoff as Craig, the first, whom Gary regales with a spectacular improvised riff about disposing of bodies that seals the deal—and the arrest and conviction—through little portraits of aggrieved husbands, wives and business partners written and played as a bunch of cheerfully weird oddballs.

But the screenplay especially expands another episode in Johnson’s career, in which he steered a client, an abused wife, into therapy rather than letting her incriminate herself, into a full-fledged romance.  It would be criminal to explain the twists and turns the script brings to this; suffice it to say they include murder, blackmail, and still more play-acting.  There’s also a good deal of moral ambiguity at work, but it’s not treated too heavily; just think of “Charade” with a soupçon of “Double Indemnity” added for good measure.

In any event, the result provides an enviable showcase for its two magnetic stars. It should prove a breakout part for Adria Arjona, who’s sexy and seductive as all get-out as Maddy Masters, the wife whose tale of woe causes Powell’s protective side to emerge.  Their banter at their first meeting has a sparkle not entirely due to the sharp dialogue; the chemistry is immediately palpable, making what follows feel inevitable despite the implausibility.  As for Powell, this represents the final leg in his recent ascent to leading man status, which began with “Top Gun: Maverick” in 2022 and was cemented in Sydney Sweeney’s surprise rom-com smash “Anyone But You” last year.  Transitioning effortlessly from his Johnson’s nerdy professor at the start to the smooth, charming hit man Ron that Maddy falls for, he demonstrates that he’s a genuine movie star.  One might call this the role of a lifetime, except that one suspects that there are plenty more in Powell’s future.

This is basically a two-hander, but Linklater’s filled the supporting parts in the clever screenplay with his customary deft touch.  Gary’s comrades on the force include Austin Amelio as Jasper, the hot-tempered undercover cop whose hit man role Johnson assumes when he’s put on probation; Retta as Claudette and Sanjay Rao as Phil, the two surveillance pros who oversee Gary’s meetings with clients and are amazed by his skill; and Gralen Bryant Banks as their put-upon sergeant.  Evan Holtzman is convincingly nasty as Maddy’s volcanic ex-husband, and Molly Bernard has an especially nice scene as Gary’s ex-wife Alisha, herself a psychologist, whose analysis of his reserved personality is both acute and, as it turns out, amusingly wrong. (Their discussion of identity allows the film’s underlying theme to be made explicit.)  Then there are the sharp cameos by the motley bunch who play Johnson’s assortment of off-the-wall clients, some of whom (like the kid, played by Jonas Lerway, who tries to pay Gary in video games) are, incredibly, based on real people. 

As is regularly the case, Linklater’s loose, limber style allows the performances to flower, and his craft team—production designer Bruce Curtis, costumer Julianna Hoffpauir, cinematographer Shane F. Kelly and a stable of makeup artists—display their A game across the board.  (It must have pained the director to move the narrative from Houston to New Orleans, presumably for tax write-off reasons; but the Louisiana setting works perfectly well.)  Editor Sandra Adair keeps things moving spiffily, and had an important hand in a delicious montage of clips from movies featuring the “real” hit men who are a cinematic staple.  Graham Reynolds’ score is another plus, as is the work of Randall Poster and Meghan Currier in supervising needle drops.

It’s easy to criticize most of Netflix’s original movies, but here they’ve got an absolute winner—a clever, inventive take-down of a sadly formulaic movie genre, marked by Linklater’s easygoing style and a combustible romantic pairing of two super-attractive stars.