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A mild-mannered professor assumes the persona of a 'Hit Man' in this twisted tale

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Director Richard Linklater first cast Glen Powell in a film in 2006, playing a small role in "Fast Food Nation," and more recently in Linklater's 2022 film, "Apollo 10 1/2." That same year, Powell made another movie, appearing opposite Tom Cruise in "Top Gun: Maverick," and suddenly Glen Powell became a movie star. Last year, he made a romantic comedy, "Anyone But You," with Sydney Sweeney, that, like "Top Gun: Maverick," was a major box office hit. And now he's the star of a new movie he co-wrote with Richard Linklater, who also directs. It's called "Hit Man," and after opening recently in limited theatrical release, it comes to Netflix on Friday. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: "Hit Man" is based on an article in Texas Monthly, written by Skip Hollandsworth, which told of a very improbable true story. Mild-mannered philosophy teacher Gary Johnson was enough of a tech geek to earn money in his spare time working with local police to set up recording and listening devices for their sting operations. One day, while in the audio surveillance truck, Gary was called into action to fill in for an undercover cop and asked to pretend to be a hitman for hire. And just like that, Gary's life changed drastically. The movie "Hit Man" is co-written by Glen Powell, who stars as Gary, and Richard Linklater, who also directs, working with Powell for the fourth time. They give each other the freedom to have lots of fun, and it's infectious. Powell, whose Gary conjures up several different hitman alter-egos, attacks his roles like Peter Sellers playing various parts in "Dr. Strange Love."

And Linklater, as director, gets to dive head first into action scenes and love scenes that aren't exactly the first thing that comes to mind from the director of "Boyhood," "School Of Rock" and "Dazed And Confused." After a first half that sticks pretty close to actual events, the rest of "Hit Man" springboards into imagined fantasy, making it, as this movie announces at the beginning, a somewhat true story. But go with it.

At the start, Powell's Gary Johnson is like Walter White in "Breaking Bad," lecturing to students in his New Orleans classroom who are barely attentive and, like him, completely unaware that the lecture he's giving is about to describe his own life path.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HIT MAN")

GLEN POWELL: (As Gary) So what does Nietzsche mean when he says the secret for harvesting from existence the greatest fruitfulness, the greatest enjoyment is to live dangerously? Build your cities on the slopes of Vesuvius, send your ships into uncharted seas, live at war with your peers and yourselves. What is he getting at here? Anybody? Sylvia.

JORDAN JOSEPH: (As Sylvia) It sounds like he's saying you have to put yourself out there. You have to take risks and get out of your comfort zone because life is short. You have to live passionately and on your own terms.

POWELL: (As Gary) Well, I have a three-word response to that - ab, so, lutely.

BIANCULLI: Gary is a divorced man who lives alone, drives a Honda Civic and doesn't eat his own breakfast until after he's fed his pets and watered his plants. But once Gary is drafted into meeting a man who's there to hire someone he thinks is a contract killer, Gary takes the assignment and the role very seriously. And while his police colleagues listen from the van and Gary gives himself an internal pep talk, his transformation into a hired killer takes hold instantly.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HIT MAN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) So how long you been doing this?

POWELL: (As Gary) That's none of your [expletive] business.

RETTA: (As police officer, laughter) Look at Gary.

POWELL: (As Gary) You called me to do a job.

SANJAY RAO: (As Phil) The man is a natural.

RETTA: (As police officer) Playing some offense here.

POWELL: (As Gary) You don't know me. I don't know you. And at some point in the future, that's going to be a good thing. We're not going to be friends. You got it?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Got it.

POWELL: (As Gary) Breathe. Think hit man thoughts.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) So?

POWELL: (As Gary) So, you're assessing me. Am I the right guy to eliminate your problem? And just so you know, I'm assessing you, too.

BIANCULLI: And Gary is off, approaching each assignment like it's the leading role in the school play, going all method, with elaborate disguises, accents and even imaginary backstories. As Gary sees it, his job is to become each sting target's ideal version of a hit man in order to seal the deal. And each target has a different vision. But eventually, one potential sting target throws him, a woman named Madison who wants him to kill her abusive husband. While she's falling for his act, he's falling for her, falling in love, and turning "Hit Man" into a very twisted type of rom-com.

And it works so well in part because of Adria Arjona, who plays Madison and currently plays Bix on the Star Wars TV series "Andor." When she played Laurie, the star's ex-lover in the TV miniseries "Irma Vep," she lit up every scene and demanded and deserved attention. I know that's a fairly obscure reference, but she does it here, too. And there's also solid support by two of the co-stars playing cops on Gary's sting operation, Austin Amelio, who played Dwight on the "Walking Dead, " and Retta, who played Donna on "Parks And Recreation." Overall, the performances are strong, the writing is shrewd and the tone is light and funny, yet occasionally sexy or suspenseful. Don't expect a faithful retelling of Gary Johnson's life story, but do expect to sit back and enjoy some of the imagined possibilities.

DAVIES: David Bianculli is professor of television Studies at Rowan University. He reviewed the new Netflix film "Hit Man." On tomorrow's show, we hear from writer Colson Whitehead. After writing two Pulitzer Prize-winning novels, "The Underground Railroad" and "The Nickel Boys," he started writing crime novels set in Harlem. His most recent crook manifesto is an entertaining read about crime at every level from small-time crooks to revolutionaries, cops, politicians and Harlem's elite. It's now out in paperback. I hope you can join us. To keep up with what's on the show and get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram at @nprfreshair.

(SOUNDBITE OF ZOOT SIMS' "BLUE SKIES (REMASTERED 1990)")

DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Susan Nyakundi and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross and Tonya Mosley, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF ZOOT SIMS' "BLUE SKIES (REMASTERED 1990)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.