Some films you just fall in love with straight away. No, wait. Scrap that. Perhaps “love” is too strong; it’s a word bandied around way too much.
I remember being instantly hooked by Grosse Pointe Blank straight away, at the cinema in 1997. From the first scene to the last I completely bought in to its wit, its soundtrack, its indie spirit and its fanboy nods to Bond films and 1980s John Hughes movies. This often-amusing, often-ludicrous dark comedy regarding a hitman going through an early mid-life crisis who decides to return home to attend a high school reunion is a gem of a film, with loads of great little touches that continually reward those fond of a re-watch or five.
Martin Blank (John Cusack) is the killer-for-hire in question, who suddenly left the town of Grosse Pointe, Michigan on his prom night ten years earlier, jilting his girlfriend Debi Newberry (Minnie Driver). Blank, to all intents and purposes, disappeared off the radar and joined the military (something completely against character). While in military service it was discovered that he possessed a certain “flexible” psychological profile, and was easily persuaded by the CIA to join their ranks as a hitman. By the time the film begins, though, the character is a freelance contract killer, using a shipping firm run by his secretary Marcella (Joan Cusack) as a decoy, while competing for work against rival hitman Grocer (Dan Aykroyd).
We first encounter Blank in the midst of a hit, on the phone to Marcella, who is reading aloud an invitation to Martin’s ten-year high school reunion. Though Martin isn’t interested initially, Marcella persists, insisting she is fascinated by the idea that he “actually comes from somewhere”. In two minds, Martin is finally persuaded to go by his weary, reluctant therapist Dr. Oatman (Alan Arkin), while coincidentally a contract arrives ordering the murder of a federal witness in Grosse Pointe before they are able to testify in front of a Grand Jury. (While it’s necessary for the plot, even as unbelievable movie coincidences go this one is stretching things way, way too far.)
In Michigan, Martin seeks out old flame Debi, now a local DJ playing 80s records all weekend in honour of the forthcoming reunion. (The job is actually a great device here; it informs a lot of Debi’s characteristics, or rather makes the character very believable, and also allows for an excellent 80’s heavy soundtrack, partly put together by the late Joe Strummer.) Things in Grosse Pointe have changed, however, and Martin finds that the house he grew up in has been turned into a convenience store (“You can never go home anymore, Oatman, but I guess you can shop there…”), while his wheelchair-bound and barely lucid mother Mary (Barbara Harris) is suffering from mental illness, living in a care home. After visiting his father’s grave, Martin also bumps into old friend Paul (Jeremy Piven, pre-Entourage), now a local real estate salesman.
Unfortunately for Martin, Grocer also decides to show up in Grosse Pointe, with two NSA agents in tow (played by Hank Azaria and K. Todd Freeman); all three are desperate for an opportunity to kill Blank. To make matters even worse, another hitman – Felix LaPoubelle (Benny Urquidez) – is in town, and he is also trying to kill Blank due to the latter’s role in an earlier, botched hit. Despite all this, Blank presses on, trying to rekindle his relationship with Debi and hoping to work out whether he wants to carry on with his unusual career.
It may be a silly, bizarre premise, but it’s easy to roll with it and the film has plenty of tongue-in-cheek comedy to remind you that you shouldn’t be taking any of it remotely seriously. Still, it’s not an out-and-out comedy, and it doesn’t shirk away from the necessary violence; one fight between Blank and LaPoubelle is superb, almost (almost!) laying down the template for the Jason Bourne films that would follow.
Blank is a fascinating character: his own twisted morality means that he has no problem killing people if he thinks they deserve it (“Chances are if I show up at your door you’ve done something to deserve it…”) but he also shirks job offers he considers to be ethically unsound (for example environmental protesters aboard a boat). Amusingly, upon his return to Grosse Pointe, he is completely open when asked about his current job by old faces, telling Debi, Paul and Debi’s father exactly what he does for a living when asked. The running gag relies on the fact that the job is too incredible to believe, and all of them assume he is joking and make jokes in return.
There are other great touches throughout the film. Blank and Grocer drive the exact same colour and make of car, for example. The minor roles are all great fun, particularly Arkin’s increasingly-harrassed Dr. Oatman, Jenna Elfman’s high school classmate recovering from a near-death experience and Michael Cudlitz’s Bob Destepello, an ex-jock bully with a penchant for poetry.
At one point, brilliantly, Guns N’ Roses’ version of Live And Let Die is playing as Martin enters the convenience store that has replaced his family home. As he walks through the door and the location switches from the exterior to the interior, the bluster of Axl Rose et al is swiftly replaced by a perky muzak version of the song. In an excellent shootout in the same store, director George Armitage doffs his cap to Tarantino in a fitting way: Blank fires wildly towards a Pulp Fiction promotional stand, blowing Bruce Willis’s head clean off.
There are things I saw for the first time in this latest viewing, despite having watched the film on many occasions in the last 15 years (I only just spotted, for example, that Martin’s invitation card to the school reunion wittily includes the instruction “Dress To Kill”). It’s clear that the cast, director and the writers (Tom Jankiewicz, D. V. DeVincentis, Steve Pink and John Cusack) put a lot of thought and effort into making this world and these characters believable; it was essential, given the unbelievable premise.
Grosse Pointe Blank often feels like a film that drops back in on the lives of a 1980s John Hughes-style class – as though someone had the thought: “what if Duckie from Pretty In Pink had gone on to have the weirdest job imaginable?” or “what line of work would Cameron from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off actually go into after graduation?” It often perfectly captures the tone of those classic teen drama / comedies, helped too by the film’s location and the soundtrack (featuring Echo And The Bunnymen, The Clash, The Specials and so on). The high school outsider is championed in the same way, too: both Martin and Debi were seemingly popular at school, yet were clearly alternative kids.
As a comedy, Grosse Pointe Blank will not have you rolling around on the floor in hysterics, but while it opts for a subtle, intelligent brand of humour it certainly isn’t highbrow, and it feels like an inclusive movie. The comedy just about sits OK with the action, too; as mentioned before the shootouts and fights are not played for laughs, except on one or two occasions, but by and large it all gels. There are a couple of moments where you really have to suspend disbelief to accept that Dan Aykroyd is a violent, ruthless killer, especially when he is pulling faces and shouting out the catchphrase “Popcorn!”, but this is way, way cooler – and actually more believable – than a hell of a lot of crime comedies.
I find my appreciation for this movie grows with its age, although nearly all of my all-time favourite crime films are serious, heavy affairs. Even in terms of the 1990s I would say this doesn’t hit the peaks of GoodFellas, The Usual Suspects, Heat, Se7en, Reservoir Dogs or even those with a more unusual tone like True Romance, A Simple Plan, Fargo or Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead. (What a decade this was for the crime film. I didn’t even mention Pulp Fiction, Red Rock West, Menace II Society, Carlito’s Way, Donnie Brasco, The Grifters, King Of New York, Casino, Shallow Grave, Dead Presidents, The Last Seduction, Miller’s Crossing or Bound!) But, that said, Grosse Pointe Blank isn’t lagging too far behind any of them; it’s a pretty cool film that wears its influences proudly on its sleeve, has good chemistry between the two leads and has some sharp, funny moments. I don’t quite “love” it, but there’s not a hell of a lot wrong with it either.
Directed by: George Armitage
Written by: Tom Jankiewicz, D. V. DeVincentis, Steve Pink and John Cusack
Starring: John Cusack, Minnie Driver, Dan Aykroyd, Alan Arkin, Joan Cusack
Running Time: 107 Minutes