Richard Linklater returned to the fest circuit this year with one of his best films, the wonderfully entertaining “Hit Man,” a movie that straddles comedy, noir, and even true crime thriller to even become a meta-commentary on the playful form of acting in the first place. Most of all, it’s a revelation for star/writer Glen Powell, who fulfills here on the promise shown in “Top Gun: Maverick,” “Devotion,” and Linklater’s “Everybody Wants Some!!” Watching Powell here is like watching a young George Clooney or Tom Cruise. The way he holds the camera, uses his body, calibrates his performance—it’s that increasingly rare thing they used to call star power. And when it finds a perfect balance in co-star Adria Arjona, “Hit Man” provides something else that’s disturbingly hard to find in movies in the 2020s: actual screen chemistry. “Hit Man” can sometimes be a little too laid back for its own good, especially in the final act, but it’s a minor complaint for what was easily the most purely enjoyable film I saw at TIFF this year. And the sexiest in a long time.
Very loosely based on a true story, “Hit Man” is about a guy who isn’t really a hitman. Powell plays Gary Johnson, an ordinary philosophy professor—although the suggestion that his students wouldn’t notice he was hot and charismatic from the very beginning is like when Clark Kent goes unnoticed because he wears glasses. Still, Gary is more obsessed with Kant or feeding his cats Id and Ego than he is dating. He decides to help out the local police with some surveillance work and gets thrust into an actual undercover gig as a hired assassin, and, guess what, he nails it. It turns out that someone who studies the human condition is perfect for going undercover since Gary is able to give people exactly what they expect from someone who takes money for murder.
That’s when Madison (Arjona) hires a hitman named Ron, who is actually Gary undercover. The very first scene between Arjona and Powell has that palpable “Out of Sight” energy—cool and hot simultaneously. You understand why Ron/Gary makes the crucial decision to talk Madison out of the job, setting in motion a series of events that couldn’t possibly be predicted.
At its core, “Hit Man” is a noir. Madison is the femme fatale; Ron is the guy who makes mistakes that lead to violence. But it’s also got a vein of dark humor that makes it feel Coen-esque at times. And a meta-level that can inspire conversation about how Ron/Gary reflects the Id & Ego or the fact that an actor wrote a movie about the freedom and dangers of playing dress-up.
Linklater has long had a gift with playful humor, and he nails the tone here without turning “Hit Man” into the slapstick it could have become. His directorial work maintaining the difficult balance of this film will likely be underrated because everyone will be awed by Powell, a performer that one instantly wants to see again as soon as this film is over. He’s got that thing that used to launch careers, and the only concern is that there’s no market for movie stars anymore. If there is, he’s going to be a smash hit.
Someone who has been through the star system and back again is Michael Keaton, who brought his own directorial effort about a hired assassin—murder is definitely a trend on the fest circuit this year—in the frustrating “Knox Goes Away.” Keaton is such a stoic performer, a phenomenal actor whose low-key energy can sometimes be deployed to great impact by the right filmmakers. Interestingly, I don’t think Keaton the Director knows how to direct Keaton the Actor. He’s too laid-back here when “Knox” needs some heat, and the always-welcome James Marsden is a bit miscast opposite him. Most of all, “Knox Goes Away” feels like a film that needed another rewrite or tightening in the editing room.
Keaton plays John Knox, an assassin with a serious problem. He has fast-moving dementia. He is starting to have blackouts, which is not the best condition for someone as meticulous as a paid killer needs to be. In a matter of weeks, he won’t be able to function at all, which means it’s time for him to cash out all his many illicit forms of payment like art and jewelry. As he turns to a friend (Al Pacino) to help launder the goods and get the money to the right people—mostly the family he left behind and his only ally, a prostitute (Joanna Kulig) he sees weekly—something more urgent drops into his life.
John’s son Miles (Marsden) shows up one night covered in blood. He confesses that he confronted the man that raped his daughter and stabbed him to death. John, who has seen a few steps ahead his whole life, sets in motion a plan designed to set Miles free forever.
The plan is crazy and designed in a way to make the audience unsure if the actions of our protagonist are calculated or the product of his dementia. The result is a script that’s intentionally muddled, but there’s a fine line between keeping an audience in the dark and playing games with them. This one crosses it so that the final revelations are cheap instead of clever. They’d be easier to take if John and Miles felt like real people or even charismatic archetypes, but they’re really just plot devices, dragged through a film so much that you won’t care what happens to them. You’ll just want them to go away.
Finally, there’s the return of a director whose last film won the TIFF People’s Choice Award on its way to an Oscar, Taika Waititi. The “Jojo Rabbit” writer/director actually shot his “Next Goal Wins” in 2019, but the merger between Fox and Disney, along with reshoots and general delays, led to it premiering at TIFF four years later. It feels like Waititi will probably wish this could have been quietly released a few years ago and everyone could just move onto something else because it’s a deeply forgettable movie when it’s not being lazy or offensive. It’s a film that wants to have it both ways—an inspirational sports underdog story and the tale of a man who learns that winning isn’t everything—but commits to neither, relying too heavily on Taika’s fan base to laugh at jokes he’s told before.
Michael Fassbender plays Thomas Rongen, a Dutch-American football manager who has the temper of a young Bobby Knight. His dramatic outbursts led him to be shuffled off to the team in American Samoa, most famous for losing a World Cup game to Australia by a final score of 31-0, the largest margin in FIFA history. Rongen has to battle culture clashes on an island with a population under 50k as he tries to get the team ready for the 2014 World Cup. And by “ready,” I mean they hope to score one goal this time.
There’s a better story buried in “Next Goal Wins” in the journey of Jaiyah (Kaimana), a member of the community known as fa’afafine. She became the first openly non-binary and trans person to play in a World Cup qualifier—there’s your movie! Why on Earth should we care about another bitter coach when there’s a story of courage and representation that’s largely just being used as a subplot to his journey? It’s so misguided that when Rongen dead-names Jaiyah, it’s smoothed over too quickly with a “Well, he’s a tough coach from another country” shrug. It doesn’t help that Kaimana is excellent, easily giving the best performance in a film that should have been about her.
Of course, it’s a fool’s errand to judge a film on what it should have been instead of what it is, but the choice to center Rongen would be more forgivable if it weren’t bluntly told and inconsistent in its messaging. There are two ways to tell Rongen’s story—an underdog sports narrative about an outsider who draws athletic confidence from his team or a bitter veteran who learns that island life is about more than scoring goals on the pitch. “Next Goal Wins” doesn’t devote enough energy to either, falling back on “quirky local” jokes instead of even allowing us to get to know most of these people. In the moment, as the jokes are flying fast, Waititi obviously has a grip on the comic timing—there were far worse films at TIFF this year in terms of pure entertainment, even if it’s clichéd—but it’s when this game is over that one realizes this team isn’t going anywhere.