Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Taking a Stab at “Hit Man”

As a teacher of screenwriting through UCLA Extension’s The Writers’ Program, I’m always interested in what genres aspiring writers choose to concentrate on. I love the variety: romantic comedies, action adventure, heartfelt dramas, police procedurals, family fare. For a while, a good proportion of my advanced screenwriting students seemed to want to focus on the physical and moral perils of being a hit man. To each his (or her) own, I guess. But the key maxim for writers has always been Write What You Know. I suspect (phew!) that none of my students has put in time as a murderer for hire. That’s why these scripts, exciting though they may be, never seem to have the ring of reality.

 Which made me doubly curious about a new film, released through Netflix but currently in theatres, that’s been getting rave reviews. Hit Man, directed by Richard Linklater from a script he co-wrote with the film’s star, Glen Powell, is based on a Texas Monthly article about a certain Gary Johnson. The  late Johnson was a mild-mannered college instructor, specializing in psychology and philosophy, who took on a part-time job posing as a hit man. His employer was the local police department: his goal was to ferret out citizens angry enough to pay a stranger to commit murder, after which they’d quickly be arrested and sent off to prison. Like his real-life counterpart, the film’s Gary Johnson discovers he thrives on donning disguises and dancing around the edges of actual mayhem. But, as the closing credits make clear, the actual Gary Johnson never broke the law. His screen counterpart, though, is a more complicated creature.

  It all starts when he meets Maddy (the gorgeous Adria Arjona) who wants to get rid of her abusive ex by any means necessary. She accepts the killer-for-hire she meets at face value:  he’s sexy tough-guy Ron. He knows, though, that underneath it all he’s meek and mild Gary, who’s quite capable of falling for Maddy, and doesn’t want to see her under arrest. When this irresistible force and this immovable object get together, sparks fly . . . and the audience thoroughly enjoys seeing where they go from here. No, of course I have no plans to give away the ending.

 I knew Richard Linklater’s work from back in the Nineties, when he introduced Matthew McConaughey to the world in Dazed and Confused.  In this century, he’s made successful studio films like School of Rock and Bad News Bears, while also experimenting with a romantic indie trilogy about two young people in Paris that started with Before Sunrise. To date, his bravest experiment has been with 2014’s Boyhood, an Oscar-nominated coming-of-age drama that was filmed between 2002 and 2013, allowing the main actors to grow and change over time. (Patricia Arquette won the statuette for Best Supporting Actress.) Now, however, he’s committed to filming Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, a musical theatre piece which covers a two-decade period in reverse chronology: he started filming in 2019 (with Ben Platt and Beany Feldstein in central roles) and—despite some key cast changes that have required major reshoots—plans to devote twenty years to the project. Good luck with that!

 Prior to Hit Man, I had never heard of Glen Powell. Now I know he has a long track record in TV, as well as recent successes in screen romantic comedies like Anyone But You. His breakout film role was as Lt. Jake "Hangman" Seresin in Top Gun: Maverick. Don’t blame me if all the flyboys in that film blur together in my mind.



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