When the Netflix logo popped up in front of the New York Film Festival screening of Hit Man, the audience booed. Richard Linklater’s wildly entertaining assassin comedy had already made a splash at the festival circuit: it was poised to be one of the year’s biggest hits, and star Glen Powell (who also featured in Anyone But You) our next great Movie Star. “Glen Powell Makes a Case for Movie Stardom in Hit Man,” Vanity Fair declared. “Hit Man is not only this year’s hidden gem at Venice; it is also one of the best films of 2023,” AwardsWatch gushed. Inverse joined the chorus, highlighting the film’s “crackling chemistry, and inclination to get very silly whenever possible.”
Loosely based on a 2001 Texas Monthly article about a college professor who posed as a hitman so the Houston police could catch would-be killers, Hit Man takes that absurd premise to the sexiest possible conclusion: what if that professor fell in love with one of his “clients”? Andor’s Adria Arjona strikes up an immediate, electric dynamic with Powell’s Gary Johnson, a mousy professor who becomes too good at playing the part of a suave, tortured assassin. It’s a delightfully zany comedy-of-errors meets grifter rom-com: raucously funny, unbearably steamy, and a showcase for Glenn Powell as a big-screen movie star. So it’s a tremendous shame Hit Man won’t enjoy the surprise big-screen success Anyone But You is having.
Shortly after Hit Man made its North American premiere at TIFF in September, it was acquired by Netflix for distribution. While Netflix’s backing was once considered a golden ticket, or even a lifeline for smaller films, it’s since become a death knell.
The problem lies in how Netflix changed the way people watch movies. The “binge” model the streaming service popularized may have made it easier for audiences to stream an entire season of a show, but it also flattened everything on the platform into “content.” Whether it was a TV show about an object’s cake-or-not-cake status, or a sobering Martin Scorsese gangster flick, it was all something to be consumed by viewers being force-fed by an algorithm.
Now, with Netflix pulling back from “vanity projects” by filmmakers like Scorsese — which the streamer used to aggressively pursue for the chance at earning some awards prestige — things are looking dire for any filmmaker who wants their movie to be remembered beyond the few days’ buzz a Netflix release affords them.
Hit Man is not only one of Linklater’s best films in years, but also the Boyhood director’s most surefire crowdpleaser. It’s designed to be watched in a crowded theater — even three months later, I still recall the gasps and giggles and cheers I shared with fellow festivalgoers at each devastatingly charming or moronic thing Powell did. The audience was packed, and the mood was slightly indignant thanks to Netflix’s acquisition, but Hit Man immediately endeared the crowd to its charming antics and wild turns. If it weren’t for the shadow of that opening Netflix logo, one could’ve imagined Hit Man opening wide in theaters to frenzied headlines like “The Movies Are Back! Theaters Are Saved (Again)!”
To be fair, Netflix, which released Hit Man’s trailer and release date today, has set the movie for a limited theatrical release before its June 7 streaming debut. But as we’ve recently seen for films like David Fincher’s The Killer and Zack Snyder’s Rebel Moon, that doesn’t help a film reach beyond the cinephiles who keep track of these things. And Linklater himself has been burned by Netflix before.
Linklater is not exactly an inaccessible arthouse director — School of Rock was a cross-generational hit, while films like Dazed and Confused and the Before trilogy are considered cultural touchstones. But did you know that Richard Linklater made an acclaimed animated movie about his childhood for Netflix? Neither did most people, and the burial of his 2022 animated film Apollo 10 1⁄2: A Space Age Childhood doesn’t bode well for Hit Man’s treatment by the streamer.
Does a Netflix release doom Hit Man to obscurity? No. But it does prevent Hit Man from becoming the bonafide box office hit it could’ve been. Maybe Netflix could reconsider changing that limited release into an “only in theaters.”