Netflix’s Hit Man is proof that ‘cancel culture’ hasn’t killed cinema

Adria Arjona and Glen Powell in ‘Hit Man' (Netflix)
Adria Arjona and Glen Powell in ‘Hit Man' (Netflix)

Why don’t they make movies like Hit Man anymore? Netflix’s fizzy, charming new comedy, directed by Boyhood’s Richard Linklater, is exactly the kind of movie we’re often told is unfilmable in the year 2024. It’s got a wholly sanitised depiction of American law enforcement. Bolshy and unapologetic sex scenes. And a deeply problematic romance at its centre. In an era when “Big Woke” has supposedly homogenised cinema into a kind of sexless, inoffensive slurry, Hit Man is a film that seems to flout the rules. And yet, despite this, Linklater’s film has been a hit, with both critics and the few dogged cinemagoers who managed to catch it during its (very) limited theatrical run.

It’s no surprise people have loved it: Hit Man is a world of fun. Anyone But You’s Glen Powell is shape-shifting and beaverishly charismatic in the lead role, playing a philosophy professor who moonlights as an ersatz assassin-for-hire in police sting operations. Andor actor Adria Arjona plays a domestic abuse victim who attempts to hire him to kill her husband; the pair begin a libidinous relationship, predicated on a pretty reprehensible case of false identity.

On paper, it’s dark, off-putting stuff. In practice, though, it’s light as a souffle: Hit Man is an unequivocal crowd-pleaser, in the mode of Linklater’s previous films School of Rock or Bernie. That the film is able to successfully win over most everyone who sees it speaks partly to its own artistic aptitude: on an acting, writing and directorial level, this is a slick and thoroughly well-constructed film. More than this, however, Hit Man attests to the unreliability of audience consensus, particularly in contemporary Hollywood.

There are a number of supposed truisms about modern cinema culture that are endlessly fed to us. Audiences have, we are told, developed an aversion to sex on screen – a phobia driven by the censorious and internet-pilled Generation Z. We are told that movie stars do not exist any more, that people like Powell and Arjona are not given the opportunity to anchor major films through sheer chemistry and star power alone. We are told that films are being warped and diminished by the need to conform to changing social standards – “cancel culture” dictating that cinema be judged not on merit but on fidelity to a contemporary moral ethos. Hit Man flies in the face of all these preconceptions. It is hard 24-FPS proof that it is still possible to make a mainstream, eminently accessible film with hard edges and a complicated (or even compromised) moral agenda.

To be clear: it’s not good that Hit Man blithely glosses over the dark facts of its central relationship – the boundaries of informed sexual consent are undoubtedly breached between Powell and Arjona’s characters. But it’s something that’s there, a niggling undercurrent that makes the film slipperier and perhaps more interesting to discuss. That Hit Man has largely eluded controversy over its problematic aspects probably speaks as much to the general obliviousness of audiences as it does Linklater’s skill in downplaying them.

As it reaches its climax, Hit Man becomes a thing of adrenaline-charged chaos. Powell and Arjona bluff their way through a life-and-death ruse with adversaries closing in from both sides of the law – a consummate plate-juggling act that plays out like a breathless screwball comedy. In this moment, it truly feels like a product of a bygone age. They don’t make ‘em like this anymore. But, of course, they do. You’re watching it.

‘Hit Man’ is out in cinemas now and available to stream on Netflix from Friday 7 June