MA 15+, 115 minutes

4 Stars


Review by © Jane Freebury

This movie about a contract killer isn’t what it might seem. People mown down like skittles, blood and gore. That doesn’t really figure. Not in this jaunty piece by Texan filmmaker, Richard Linklater, whose work like the Before trilogy and Boyhood is so often open, honest, laid back and wreathed with a smile. This ‘somewhat true’ biopic of a fake hit man has these same engaging qualities.

It’s an improbable story about a Vietnam vet, Gary Johnson, who practised Buddhism, lived alone with his cats Id and Ego, dabbled in IT and worked as a college professor teaching psychology and philosophy. He also worked undercover for the New Orleans police department that sent him on assignments as a contract killer to lure and entrap the people who sought to hire his fake services. Once the incriminating conversations that took place in diners were recorded, there was enough evidence to put these desperate, crazy people behind bars.

This hit man is a dream role for an actor. Personable and charming guy one moment, convincing potential clients that he has it in him to kill someone and dispose of the body without trace, the next. Then fronting up at his philosophy class encouraging his students to ask themselves if their life is a construct, to challenge the self they have chosen.

Alligators, dynamite, body parts disposal at 5-mile intervals, the clients lap it up

In the role of Johnson, slipping in and out of character with speed and skill as he takes on different guises to cater to his clients’ tastes, lead actor Glen Powell (Anyone But You) is a chameleon. Fans of TV series The Americans will be reminded of Matthew Rhys as a man with a seriously double life, a dazzling change artist, in and out of character.

Powell, who co-wrote the screenplay with Linklater, throws himself into character as the man of his dreams. Morphing from thinker lost in books and ideas, to man of action. Anyone who encourages his students to take risks, to live dangerously, to read the philosophers who encourage us to find our inner, other selves, must practise what he preaches, right? He becomes a doer as well as a teacher.

It’s all in the imagination. Gary Johnson (Powell) has a knack for disguise as he takes on different personas and sets out how he will dispose of his victim in gory detail. Alligators, dynamite, tips of fingers tossed out the car window at 5-mile intervals, his clients lap it up. And his New Orleans police colleagues (played by stand-up comic Retta and Sanjay Rao) can’t quite believe what they see as they watch their new recruit perform like Daniel Day.

It’s hard to feel entirely comfortable, in between chuckles, with this femme fatale and her fall guy

They are convinced he has it in him. Everyone thinks so, except Jasper (Austin Amelio terrific in the role), whose job Johnson fills while he’s on leave. Then stays on, because he does brilliantly. In fact, we discover just before the end credits that the real Gary Johnson was responsible for over 70 arrests. It’s even more alarming to hear there were so many nutjobs around who wanted someone killed.

This all sounds fun and flippant, and it is. Until Gary’s raunchy alias, Ron, falls for a beautiful woman, Madison/Maddy (Adria Arjona), who wants to hire him to knock off her husband, before he finds an opportunity to kill her himself. Ron, already more than a little smitten, refuses to take her payment, telling her to use it to make a new life for herself. After she walks out of the diner, they hook up again and begin a steamy affair, meeting for sex while leading their separate lives. This is all more or less fine and dandy until Maddy, clearly in a panic, informs Ron that her creepy husband has been shot dead. The circumstances of the crime and identity of the perpetrator will make life more than a little complicated for them both.

With the relationship between Ron and Maddy, it seems the filmmakers introduced a major deviation from the Gary Johnson real-life narrative. When the time comes for Ron/Gary to face the music, it is clever and wickedly amusing. Still, it’s hard to feel quite comfortable in between chuckles with this femme fatale and her fall guy. The film noir couple once made so deliciously famous in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity was also a fun ride, but less dubious.

First published in the Canberra Times on 6 June 2024.  Jane’s reviews are also published on Rotten Tomatoes