‘Hit Man’ Says Contract Killers Aren’t Real. Here’s the Truth. (2024)

“Hit men don’t really exist!” an exasperated undercover pretend assassin says in Netflix’s new romantic action comedy, “Hit Man.” But the very existence of the film, which is loosely based on a seemingly strait-laced community college instructor who moonlighted as a fake assassin for the Houston police, proves just how much they fascinate us.

Though plenty of officers have worn wires and impersonated hit men in murder-for-hire investigations, the film’s inspiration, Gary Johnson, was the “Laurence Olivier of the field,” according to a 2001 Texas Monthly article by Skip Hollandsworth. Over a decades-long career, relying on a bevy of accents and a penchant for being a sympathetic listener, Johnson, who died in 2022, managed to ensnare more than 60 people who tried to hire him.

That’s just the kind of character that’s catnip for a leading-man-in-the-making like Glen Powell, who plays a version of Johnson in “Hit Man.” Of course, the actor and his director Richard Linklater, who wrote the script together, added a few Hollywood touches, including a rom-com plot involving the fictional Johnson and a woman (Adria Arjona) hoping to hire him to kill her husband.

But some of the movie’s most outlandish plot elements — like the teenager who tries to pay Johnson partly in Atari computer games — did really happen. Here’s the story behind the movie and a look at hit men in real life.

Who was Gary Johnson, whose life inspired the film?

To his neighbors, he was a mild-mannered, middle-aged man who lived alone with two cats and worked in human resources at a company downtown, as he told them. (The baggy jorts and love of birding are Hollywood inventions.)

In reality, Johnson, who spent a year as a military policeman in Vietnam, was an investigator for the district attorney’s office in Houston. On the side, he taught classes in human sexuality and general psychology two nights a week at a local community college. (The film switches it up, making Powell’s character a professor working for the police on the side and relocating the action to New Orleans.)

How did he land his pretend assassin gig?

He wasn’t drafted to fill in for a corrupt cop who had been suspended, as the film has it.

Johnson began working as an undercover agent in 1989 when the district attorney’s office received a tip about a woman looking for someone to kill her husband. Johnson’s bosses asked him to disguise himself as a hit man and wear a wire to meet her.

Posing as a tough-as-nails biker — and wearing a necklace with a miniature silver human skull — he agreed to meet her at a bowling alley.

It turned out he had a knack for being a sympathetic listener, as well as for getting people to clearly state the crimes they wanted him to commit — which is necessary for a conviction. The woman who tried to hire Johnson was sentenced to 80 years in prison, and he continued working as a fake hit man.

Did he really wear disguises and adopt accents?

Yes, though not to the degree Powell’s character does in the film.

“It was Glen who really ran with those false identities that Gary creates for each of his cases,” Linklater said in a Netflix interview. “I was like, ‘Should we really do a Russian accent?’ But Glen just pushed all of that to the max, and I love how it came out.”

According to Texas Monthly, Johnson’s acting skills were his real strength — he was equally believable as a mobster willing to kill for any amount of money, or as a sleek, skilled assassin who wouldn’t take on a job for less than six figures, depending on the client.

“It got to a point where I would be transcribing a tape of one of his murder-for-hire conversations, and I could not tell it was Gary on the tape,” Esmeralda Noyola, a secretary in the special-crimes division of the Houston district attorney’s office, told the magazine. “Gary was that good at changing accents and disguising his voice.”

Did he really strike up romance with a woman who tried to hire him?

No, though Johnson told Hollandsworth that on one — and only one — occasion in his decades-long career, he referred a woman who tried to hire him to kill her abusive boyfriend to social services rather than organize a sting operation.

Was his cover ever blown?

Just once, according to Texas Monthly, when an informant felt guilty about giving up a friend and told the potential client who Johnson really was. (The client, unsurprisingly, backed out.)

But even when The Houston Chronicle wrote about his cases in articles that contained Johnson’s real name, oblivious clients kept seeking him out.

Do real hit men exist?

Yes, but not in the way Hollywood would have you think of them. While history is certainly riddled with enforcers for gangs and organized crime families, the average person can’t just Google “how to hire a hit man” and pay someone to do the deed. (Dark-web murder commission sites like Slayers Hitmen and Azerbaijani Eagles, are, in fact, scams, with no known murder attributed to any of them.)

Earlier this year, Dennis Kenney, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told The New York Times that the average person’s idea of a slick, skilled hit man is “pretty much myth,” adding that a contract killer is usually “nothing more than a thug who offers or agrees to a one-off payday.”

“Which is why they get caught,” he said.

Who are some notable contract killers?

The actor Woody Harrelson’s father, Charles Voyde Harrelson, for one, was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 1973 after killing a grain dealer in Texas for $2,500. Then, once he was released after only five years (because of good behavior), he was convicted in 1982 of murdering a federal district judge, a job for which he charged a drug dealer $250,000. He was serving two life sentences when he died of a heart attack in prison in 2007 at age 68.

Jeanette Van Nessen, the Dutch assassin whose own death inspired Steven Spielberg’s 2005 movie, “Munich,” reportedly charged more than $80,000 per hit.

Also, mobsters.

How common are murder-for-hire plots?

According to the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, there were just seven arrests statewide for contract killing or attempts in 2022. And that was an atypical year: The seven arrests matched the total for the five previous years combined.

Nationally, the Federal Bureau of Investigation works undercover on about 70 to 90 murder-for-hire cases each year.

How much does it cost to have someone killed?

Estimates vary depending on factors like the difficulty of the hit and the prominence of the target, but according to F.B.I. news releases, fees have ranged from $25,000 to kill a spouse to $600 for a girlfriend.

Do police departments really use fake hit men?

Yes, and thanks to a long line of hit-man movies like David Fincher’s “The Killer,” a substantial subset of the population believes that if they just search hard enough, they’ll be able to find someone willing to murder anyone for cold, hard cash.

The post ‘Hit Man’ Says Contract Killers Aren’t Real. Here’s the Truth. appeared first on New York Times.

‘Hit Man’ Says Contract Killers Aren’t Real. Here’s the Truth. (2024)


Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: The Hon. Margery Christiansen

Last Updated:

Views: 5956

Rating: 5 / 5 (70 voted)

Reviews: 85% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: The Hon. Margery Christiansen

Birthday: 2000-07-07

Address: 5050 Breitenberg Knoll, New Robert, MI 45409

Phone: +2556892639372

Job: Investor Mining Engineer

Hobby: Sketching, Cosplaying, Glassblowing, Genealogy, Crocheting, Archery, Skateboarding

Introduction: My name is The Hon. Margery Christiansen, I am a bright, adorable, precious, inexpensive, gorgeous, comfortable, happy person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.