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The Real Story of the Fake Contract Killer Behind Richard Linklater’s Hit Man

6 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:

This story was originally published in September when Hit Man premiered at the Toronto Film Festival. It’s now being updated as the movie hits Netflix on June 7.

Hit Man, the latest movie from Richard Linklater, is many things: a funny rom-com with an edge, a star-making moment for actor Glen Powell, and a self-billed "somewhat" adaptation of a true story.

Linklater and Powell, who co-wrote the movie, have taken the actual life of Gary Johnson, a professor who moonlighted as a fake hit man for law enforcement, and Hollywoodized it. That’s not always a winning formula, but it is in this case. Here, Powell and Linklater have used stranger-than-life truth to craft something absolutely delightful. Following the Toronto Film Festival, Netflix reportedly acquired the movie for $20 million.

The fall movie festival season has been rife with hitman content. Hit Man premiered at the Venice Film Festival to acclaim alongside David Fincher's assassin tale The Killer and Harmony Korine's infrared take on the genre Aggro Dr1ft. In Toronto where Hit Man also played additionally saw the premiere of Michael Keaton's hitman-with-dementia movie Knox Goes Away. But Hit Man isn't really about a hit man—it's more about the allure of the hit man in the shape of a guy pretending to be one.

Read more: The 10 Best Movies Based on a True Story

The origin story

Arjona and Powell get into a complicated situation in Hit Man.Courtesy of TIFF

The basis of this tale comes from a 2001 piece of longform journalism by Skip Hollandsworth in Texas Monthly, which chronicles the workings of Johnson, who would disguise himself as various assassins to help Houston police catch people who wanted to hire a killer in order to off someone. Johnson died last year, but he was considered, according to Hollandsworth, the "the Laurence Olivier of the field." One source is quoted as saying "Gary is a truly great performer who can turn into whatever he needs to be in whatever situation he finds himself." When he wasn’t doing this work for the police department, he was a professor at a local community college who lived with his two cats. Given how crucial anonymity was to his work, it helped that he appeared completely unassuming to neighbors and kept largely to himself. 

Naturally, with that kind of multifaceted billing, you can see why an actor like Powell, a frequent Linklater collaborator who has also worked with the director on Everybody Wants Some!! and Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood, would be attracted to this kind of role. Hit Man, the movie, uses Johnson's name and many facts from the article, including his catchphrase “All pie is good pie.” But it also adds new stakes to the story by asking a question: What if this guy met a woman on the job and fell in love?

Linklater had been aware of Hollandsworth's article since it came out, given that he's a friend of the journalist, a co-writer of 2011's Bernie, which was also based on his reporting. But, according to Variety, the project really came together over the pandemic when Powell, who makes his feature screenwriting debut here, got in touch with Linklater about the story.

The movie version

Hit Man
Arjona and Powell in Hit Man.Courtesy of TIFF

On screen, Gary is portrayed at the outset of the narrative as a dorky birder in high-waisted shorts and glasses who is thrown into his job almost by accident. Though his main job is as a professor of philosophy and psychology, he has been doing tech work for sting operations in New Orleans. When the corrupt cop (Austin Amelio) who usually works in the field gets suspended, Gary is called up. And like the real life Johnson, it turns out he's really good at getting people to articulate the crime they want to commit—something they must do, clearly and on tape, in order for the police to gather sufficient evidence for a conviction.

Given his academic interests in human behavior, Gary relishes his new side occupation. He imagines what kind of hit man the clients think they are getting, and then dresses for the occasion. This gives Powell, best known for his cocky turn in Top Gun: Maverick, plenty of opportunities to show off his very amusing character work, affecting various accents and donning multiple wigs.

Then he meets Madison (Andor’s Adria Arjona). She's a woman in a terrible marriage who calls Gary to get rid of her controlling husband. But the dynamic is immediately different. For Madison, he assumes the identity of Ron, a suave but mellow guy, and when they meet up at a diner he can see she's truly distressed. So he offers her an out, telling her to take the money she's handing him and use it to get a new life.

That act of kindness is in fact taken from the kicker of Hollandsworth's article, which describes a call Johnson received about a woman who had been telling a Starbucks employee she was looking for someone to kill her abusive boyfriend. Instead of running a sting operation, Johnson, after learning more about the violent situation she was in, decided to help her, setting her up with resources to help her get into a shelter. All of which prompted Hollandsworth to quip to him, "The greatest hit man in Houston has just turned soft."

But in the cinematic version, the relationship goes further. Madison reaches out to Gary as Ron, and Gary, liking both her and the way he acts as Ron, takes her up on her offer to meet up. It's trite to say the metaphorical sparks fly, but they really do here as Powell turns up the charisma machine and Arjona responds in kind.

Given his deception and profession, as well as her lingering bad blood with her ex, theirs is not a smooth path to happiness. But Linklater, who made the Before trilogy (Sunrise, Sunset, and Midnight, that is), is a great portrayer of romance and all its complications. The real Gary Johnson was thrice divorced, according to Texas Monthly. In the movies, he gets an epic love story.

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