Grosse Pointe Blank
Grosse Pointe Blank, which seems destined for cult-movie status (it didn’t open very well), may have arrived too early to capitalize on the growing ’80s nostalgia. For Generation X, ’70s nostalgia (which returns twentysomethings to childhood) seems to have played itself out; this movie and Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, which opened two weeks later, remind their target audience of their teens. A bigger problem for Grosse Pointe Blank is that it looks like another Tarantino clone. No clone, this; in its modest way, it’s one of 1997’s best films, and certainly the funniest and freshest.
The movie stars John Cusack, the prince of smart ’80s cult comedies (The Sure Thing, Better Off Dead, One Crazy Summer) who became a Gen-X icon as Lloyd Dobler in Say Anything. In Grosse Pointe Blank, which he also co-wrote (with buddies Steve Pink and D. V. DeVincentis, reworking a Tom Jankiewicz script the star optioned for himself), Cusack doesn’t buy, sell, or process anything, but he does kill people for a living. Call it Slay Anything. Cusack even does some kickboxing and has a few scenes with his endearingly off-center sister Joan (who plays his long-suffering but devoted secretary). He’s called Martin Q. Blank here, but he’s Lloyd as a reservoir dog.
Which is an entirely charming premise. If Martin were played by anyone else — say, a fellow ’80s veteran like Kevin Bacon or Charlie Sheen — the movie wouldn’t work. Grosse Pointe Blank, which is quite violent at times, needs Cusack’s witty aura of decency. Like many of his generation, Martin has stumbled into a job he’s getting sick of. Talking to his shrink (Alan Arkin), he denies any personal connection to his work. Whenever he’s forced to kill, he insists “It’s not me.” Cusack and his co-writers use professional killing as a metaphor for the dreaded buying, selling, and processing that trap so many Martins (and Lloyds).
Martin isn’t as chipper about his job as is his deranged colleague “the Grocer” (Dan Aykroyd, casually turning in his best performance in years), who envisions an assassin’s union and wants Martin to join. Instead, Martin takes a freelance hit job near his hometown of Grosse Pointe, where his ten-year class reunion is approaching. He tracks down his ex-girlfriend Debi (Minnie Driver, who matches up beautifully with Cusack; they’re funky post-punk soulmates), whom he stood up on prom night and has obsessed about ever since. His childhood house, he discovers, has been supplanted by a convenience store. “You can never go home again,” he sighs, “but I guess you can shop there.”
When Martin slouches homeward, a variety of unforced scenes flesh out his character for us. He has a natural, easy rapport with Debi even after ten years of absence; they seem to pick up exactly where they left off, even though the past decade has meant a failed marriage for her and a lot of dead bodies for him. They remind each other of the potential they once thought they had, and their deftly written dialogue has a sting of depression giving way to a flowering of hope — maybe they can ditch it all and start over. We feel the history between them, the shared in-jokes and tastes (they both seem to have been seriously into the Clash and the Specials in high school — when Martin visits Debi at her home, she greets him with a line from a Specials song). Cusack’s and Driver’s acting styles mesh so seamlessly that a magical thing happens: in the middle of this hipster black comedy about a hit man, you’re watching a bona fide romantic couple (smart, suave, smitten with each other) right out of a Cary Grant classic.
The freshest aspect of Grosse Pointe Blank is the depressed hit man’s encounters with his fellow alumni in town and at the reunion. His meeting with his former English teacher is a rapid-fire exchange of amiable sarcasm that tells us volumes about the student Martin might have been: a brainy kid popular with the faculty because he made them laugh. Jeremy Piven is in riotous form as an old buddy who hardly blinks at Martin’s job: “Do you need grad school for that?” In fact, I wanted more reunion scenes and a little less of the Grocer and the corrupt feds tailing Martin; their scenes are funny and necessary but a tad stale.
I particularly liked Martin’s run-in with a brawny cokehead who bullied him in school. Instead of wasting him (as he easily could, with years of lethal experience at his fingertips), Martin calms him down — “There is no conflict between us; there is no us” — and the cokehead, suddenly sentimental, favors Martin with a muddled, heartfelt poem he’s written. Most other comedies would have gone for a cheap laugh in which Martin drops the guy with one well-aimed foot. But this isn’t a movie that goes for anything cheap. It’s a true original.
Grosse Pointe Blank is smartly directed by George Armitage, whose 1990 Miami Blues wasn’t as successful a balance of quirky and queasy; the gore sometimes drowned the humor. Here he gets it just right, aided by great ’80s new-wave pop as sparkly counterpoint to the mayhem. I bet, for instance, that you’ll never hear Nena’s “99 Luftballons” the same way again. Grosse Pointe Blank is a lot of fun. As Lloyd Dobler might say, it’s “warped and twisted and hilarious.”