Netflix’s new movie will make Glen Powell a star. Here’s why.

Netflix’s new movie will make Glen Powell a star. Here’s why.

The press has been attempting to crown Glen Powell the next big thing—Hollywood’s new leading man, the latest addition to the A-list—for years, but he’s never quite transcended That Guy status: that guy from Everybody Wants Some!!, that guy from Set It Up. In Top Gun: Maverick, he nearly out-Cruised Tom Cruise, emerging as the heir apparent to his cocky charm despite the fact that the movie was constructed to pass the torch to a different actor. And in return, he was gifted access to a private screening of a six-hour “film school” video in which Cruise himself explains the finer points of filmmaking, right down to how different kinds of cameras work. It’s not clear whether that video also included instructions on how to become a movie star, but Powell’s latest movie, Hit Man, shows that he’s learned one of the most important lessons of Cruise’s career: You have to make it look hard.

Powell has the kind of easy good looks that have kept him working steadily since his teens (he made his debut as “Long-Fingered Boy” in Spy Kids 3). But being good-looking isn’t a persona, the convergence of distinctive characteristics that separates a movie star from an Instagram influencer. Stars are beautiful (or, at worst, interesting-looking), but they aren’t just beautiful. In a world where people learn their angles before they learn to drive, mere prettiness is everywhere you look, and it takes more than a pleasing silhouette to hold our interest. You could hardly imagine a more hyperbolically shapely couple than Powell and Sydney Sweeney in Anyone but You, which overcame a slow start at the box office to become a global hit, and the first real proof of concept for his putative stardom. But the movie falls flat, because neither Powell nor Sweeney is allowed to be really vulnerable. They want each other, sure—who wouldn’t?—but they don’t need each other. The best romances have a hint of desperation to them, but desperation feels like weakness, and weakness is a quality too few would-be matinee idols are willing to allow themselves right now. It’s the romantic-comedy equivalent of the Fast and the Furious battles between jacked-up action figures whose contracts stipulate that they can never lose an onscreen fight. The most inspiring heroes are the ones who get knocked down and struggle back to their feet, not the ones who magically dodge every punch. (The John Wick movies know this in spades.)

Anyone but You tries to scuff up Powell’s Adonis aura, but even the moments that are meant to play as embarrassing, and thus humanizing, don’t land the way they should. When he’s forced to strip off his clothes to escape a venomous spider that’s slipped into his shorts, you don’t identify with his discomfort, you just marvel at his workout regimen. Hit Man, which Powell co-wrote with director Richard Linklater, tries something different: It just makes him look ordinary. As Gary Johnson, a psychology professor at a New Orleans college, he still looks like Glen Powell, but a version who doesn’t know that he’s Glen Powell. He’s got a pair of wire-rimmed glasses, two cats named Id and Ego, and an ex-wife who still thinks he’s a nice guy, just not a very passionate one. He may advise his students, quoting Nietzsche, to “live dangerously,” but he’s as safe, and as dull, as it gets.

On the side, though, he works as a technician for the police’s undercover unit, and is in charge of the recording equipment that catches people in the act of trying to hire their own assassins. One day, he’s forced to step into the leading role, passing himself off as a contract killer—and it turns out he’s good at it. His experience of studying human behavior, as well as the observational skills honed from a lifetime of sitting on the sidelines, gives him the ability to read each potential criminal and transform himself into whatever their idea of the perfect hit man might be. The series of disguises he adopts, from skeet-shooting good old boy to pasty British fop, form a great string of sight gags, but they’re also goofy as hell. Far from demonstrating Gary’s ability to vanish into every role, they come off like the world’s most cringe-inducing demo reel, or a failed audition for Saturday Night Live. But the cumulative effect is that we’re assured that Glen Powell isn’t afraid to look like a fool, and assured in our conviction that we want him to look like Glen Powell.

Eventually, Gary morphs into Ron, the suave, supremely confident hit man that Maddy (Adria Arjona) hires to kill her abusive ex-husband—or at least tries to until he talks her out of it. Maddy and Ron start up a relationship, but because he can’t be seen with her—undercover agents aren’t supposed to stop people from incriminating themselves, and they’re definitely not supposed to start dating them afterwards—that relationship is almost entirely sexual. She starts dressing up for him, as a sexy flight attendant warning him about the bumpy ride ahead, not realizing that he’s playing out her fantasies every minute they’re together. But, we start to think, maybe Gary was Ron all along, just waiting for an eruption of impulsive id to counteract his controlling ego. The transformation is subtle but definite, as if a switch has been flipped. During one of Gary’s classes, he lets enough Ron slip through for one of his students to wonder, “When did our teacher get hot?”

Naturally, we know that he was hot all along. But because Hit Man allows him to look un-hot, it’s like a secret between him and us, an intimate bond shared between the viewer and the viewed. It’s that feeling that makes an actor into an icon, and he’s finally found the right way to tap into it.

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