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Is 'Hit Man' based on a true story? Fact checking Glen Powell's Netflix Gary Johnson movie

Spoiler alert! We're discussing plot points in Netflix's new fake assassin movie "Hit Man." Stop reading now if you haven't seen it yet and don't want to know.

"Hit Man" is a romantic comedy that aims to kill your notion of who a hit man can be.

The Netflix movie stars Glen Powell ("Top Gun," "Anyone But You") as Gary Johnson, a real-life undercover police officer who made a name for himself by posing as a fake assassin for hire. He would meet with people who wanted to murder a spouse, colleague, boss and so on, and once they uttered their desire for the hit and gave Johnson money, the recorded transaction often landed those individuals in jail.

Powell co-wrote "Hit Man," which is based on a 2001 , with director Richard Linklater ("Boyhood," "Everybody Wants Some!!"). Powell, 35, told ӣƵ that he dove into the script in order to grab a role he didn't think he'd otherwise get.

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Glen Powell plays a college professor who goes undercover for police as a fake killer for hire in the comedy "Hit Man."

"The one thing that you realize about Hollywood is no one's ever going to give you the role that you've dreamed of," he said. "You have to bake it up yourself."

Linklater says he was drawn to the project as a way explore the often cliché notion of a killer for hire.

"This is the weirdest job ever, being a fake hit man for people who want someone dead," Linklater told the Austin American-Statesman, part of the ӣƵ Network. "It was more about the myth of the hit man. And these things don’t exist; hit men are created by movies. It’s a pop culture delusion. So I’m kind of interested in that too, about people’s beliefs. I kind of enjoy deconstructing and debunking."

How much of "Hit Man" is bunk, and how much is based on the real Johnson's exploits? We explore:

Is Gary Johnson, the hero of Netflix's 'Hit Man,' a real person?

As depicted in the movie, Johnson was a mild-mannered professor who taught classes in human sexuality and general psychology at a nearby college. While the film is set in New Orleans, Johnson lived in Houston and worked undercover alongside local law enforcement. Wearing a wire, he would meet with people soliciting hit men and coax out confessions.

According to Texas Monthly, Johnson was considered "the Laurence Olivier of the field" by his peers. He assisted in the arrests of more than 70 people seeking contract killers: Using aliases such as Mike Caine and Jody Eagle, he posed as everything from country-club sophisticates to rough-and-tumble bikers.

Russian assassin Nico is one of the alter egos used by fake hitman Gary Johnson (Glen Powell) in "Hit Man."

“He’s the perfect chameleon,” Houston lawyer Michael Hinton told Hollandsworth. “He never gets flustered, and he never says the wrong thing. ... He fools them every time.”

Did Gary Johnson really fall in love with a woman who wanted him to kill her husband?

Early in the film, Johnson is contacted by a young woman named Madison Masters (Adria Arjona), or Maddy, who asks him to kill her abusive husband, Ray (Evan Holtzman). Instead, Johnson tells her to keep her money, leave her spouse and start a new life. The two fall into bed together and start a relationship, which quickly turns dangerous when Ray shows up seeking vengeance.

According to Hollandsworth's article, there is no evidence that Johnson dated one of his potential "clients." He does detail instances in which women found Johnson seductive and tried to have sex with him.

In the movie, Johnson is divorced; in reality, Johnson was divorced three times and, according to Texas Monthly, was mostly a soft-spoken loner who enjoyed his cats and reading books by famous philosophers.

Did Gary Johnson really talk a client out of ordering a hit?

While defense attorneys would argue that Johnson steered his "clients" toward hiring him to commit murder, Johnson maintained that he was trying to help these individuals understand their true desires more clearly.

Never was that more true when he met a young woman at a Starbucks who wanted her boyfriend dead. The “Hit Man” movie uses the unnamed woman's story as a jumping-off point for the second half of the movie, but the romance was purely fictional.

Johnson "learned that she really was the victim of abuse, regularly battered by her boyfriend, too terrified to leave him because of her fear of what he might do if he found her,” Hollandsworth writes. “Instead of setting up a sting to catch the woman and send her off to jail, he decided to help her. He referred her to social service agencies and a therapist to make sure she got proper help so she could leave her boyfriend and get into a women’s shelter.”

But in most cases, even when Johnson would repeatedly ask clients to confirm they wanted to hire a killer, most ultimately said yes, the article says.

Did the murders in the Netflix movie 'Hit Man' really happen?

Glen Powell plays a fake hitman who falls for a woman (Adria Arjona) wanting to off her husband in the crime comedy "Hit Man."

In "Hit Man," Powell's Johnson has fallen in love with Maddy (Arjona) and is determined to ensure that the two have a life together, despite the duo being in serious legal jeopardy. In the movie, Madison has killed her abusive ex-husband, Ray (Holtzman), who tried to take out a hit on her. A police colleague of Johnson's, Jasper (Austin Amelio), finds out and threatens to turn the couple in unless he is given the million-dollar payment from Ray's insurance policy.

As Jasper lays out his demands to Gary and Maddy, he suddenly slumps over, as the drugs Maddy has slipped into his drink take effect. While he isn't quite dead, Gary makes the decision to put a plastic bag over Jasper's head, killing him. The movie then cuts to a few years down the road, in which, murders be damned, Gary and Maddy have two children and appear to be living happily ever after.

The real Gary Johnson never killed anyone. A title card at the end of movie says Johnson was an animal-loving Buddhist, a Vietnam War veteran and the “chilliest dude imaginable.” He was born in 1947 and died in 2022 before “Hit Man” started shooting, although his cause of death is unknown.  

Contributing: Brian Truitt, ӣƵ, and Matthew Odam, Austin American-Statesman

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