If you were looking to smile at this year’s Venice International Film Festival, then all you had to do was buy a ticket to Richard Linklater’s latest movie, Hit Man. Playing in competition, the action-comedy brought the house down earlier this week, receiving a five-minute standing ovation at the premiere.
“This movie, even though it’s about murder, felt like it could be a comedy,” the director explains, when we meet on the terrace of the Ausonia Hungaria hotel on Venice’s Lido.
The laid-back Linklater, 63, has often smuggled humour into his stories, from his indie debut Slacker (1990) and follow-up Dazed and Confused (1993) to the hit musical School of Rock (2003) and the 1970s-set Everybody Wants Some!! (2016). But you wouldn’t class him alongside Hollywood kings of comedy like the Farrelly brothers or Judd Apatow.
“I approach stories and characters with humour, I think … but I’m not a big comedy guy. I don’t go to comedy clubs,” he says. Hit Man, however, is a film that lives and dies by its characters and the increasingly crazy narrative.
Very loosely inspired by the true story of Gary Johnson, a college professor who moonlighted as an undercover policeman. Johnson specialised in posing as a hitman to catch those who hired him to commit murder. The film is based on an article by Skip Hollandsworth that appeared in Texas Monthly magazine in 2001.
“I’m friends with Skip,” explains Linklater, who had already adapted Hollandsworth’s 1998 story Midnight in the Garden of East Texas into his 2011 comic caper Bernie, with Jack Black.
Linklater read the writer’s article when it was first published and filed it away as a potential idea for a movie, but it didn’t become a reality until he received a call from actor Glen Powell, who audiences will know for his daredevil pilot in last year’s Top Gun: Maverick. The actor has read Hollandsworth’s article and felt it’d make a good movie, as long as they shifted from truth into fiction.
“I give Glen a lot of credit for pushing me,” says Linklater. “We realised we were just taking this leap from that character into what could be a fun rollercoaster ride of a movie.”
Transplanting the action to New Orleans from Houston, where the real Johnson lived, Powell takes on the lead role as the mild-mannered professor who suddenly finds his mojo when he’s promoted to the guise of a fake hitman.
With his fellow officers listening in, he lures numerous dupes into giving him money as they ask him to kill their wife, husband, mother, arch enemy or whomever it might be. In reality, Johnson was asked to kill more than 60 people by prospective clients who were then thrown in jail.
As Hollandsworth’s article describes, Johnson lets one of his potential suspects off, when he learns that she’s been “regularly battered by her boyfriend”. Rather than arrest this abuse victim, he referred her to social services.
“It’s near the very end [of the article that] he has some compassion because he sees she’s just confused. She goes to get therapy and he lets her off,” he explains.
Rather than end there, Linklater shows the character romancing Madison (Adria Arjona), the woman he sympathises with, while posing as a more confident hitman, Ron. “From then on, the movie becomes a film noir, screwball comedy, whatever, that’s a complete flight of fancy,” he adds.
It’s this element that has the crowds going wild, with Linklater crafting a film that recalls the sizzling chemistry between George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight, Steven Soderbergh’s classic Elmore Leonard adaptation. Certainly, it takes the film away from a full-on hitman film, like David Fincher’s The Killer, which has also just been unveiled in Venice.
“I’m just not that serious. I couldn’t make a real hitman movie,” says Linklater. “I just couldn’t with a straight face. I had to kind of mix it up because I just couldn’t take it that seriously.”
Linklater does pay tribute to the genre, featuring a marvellous montage of movie hitmen. Among them is Linklater’s personal favourite, Murder by Contract, a 1958 B picture starring Vince Edwards. “It’s a gem of a movie,” says Linklater, who assembled his own bucket-load of clips with some rules in mind.
For example, he excised the hitmen played by John Travolta and Samuel L Jackson in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. “They’re goons, they’re working for [their gangster boss] Marcellus, right? So they’re part of a mob. Those aren’t what I'm calling a hitman.”
While Linklater believes that contract killers working for Mafia-type organisations exist, he feels a gun-for-hire, like the one Johnson poses as, is a complete fantasy.
“I have looked into it over the past 20 years. I’ve really kind of studied it,” he says, noting that every police force could feasibly identify a contract killer using fake clients and targets. “It’d be so easy to catch them.”
Nevertheless, audiences romanticise the idea of a paid assassin.
“We’ve made a deal with the pop culture," he says. "We want there to be hitmen in the world. They make good characters in fiction.”
Hit Man is perfect proof of that.