Grosse Pointe Blank – 1997 – 107 minutes. ★★★1/2
Directed by George Armitage.
Starring: John Cusack, Minnie Driver, Joan Cusack, Dan Aykroyd, Alan Arkin, Jeremy Piven, Hank Azaria.
Where to watch: 15th Anniversary blu -ray (which unfortunately contains no extra features other than a standard format trailer).
Early in this film, the character Martin Blank (John Cusack) receives word of his upcoming ten-year high school reunion. Most viewers will relate to Martin’s anxiety surrounding this event. To go or not to go? What will it be like to see everyone after so many years? What if he runs into his old flame, a girl that he still hasn’t gotten over? And the person he has been hired to assassinate, should he kill him before or after the reunion? OK, maybe that last part is not so relatable.
Martin is a paid assassin, who is good at what he does, and claims to have no moral qualms. “If I show up at your door, chances are you did something to deserve it” he tells his psychiatrist. Martin is having recurring dreams about his high school sweetheart, Debi (Minnie Driver). He stood her up on prom night, and still has some anxiety. Of course this is nothing compared to the anxiety his psychiatrist (Alan Arkin) experiences, because he has a killer for a client.
Martin Blank is being pressured by a business rival, Grocer (Dan Aykroyd) to join an assassin’s guild of sorts. Martin wants no part of it, which makes Grocer unhappy. It is at this point that Martin has a job opportunity in the same area that his reunion will take place, so he decides, after some prodding from his business partner (Joan Cusack) to kill two birds with one stone. He can take out his target, and go to the reunion.
The rest of the movie is set around reunion weekend in Grosse Pointe, Michigan (hence the movie’s clever title). The story is really two stories happening at once. The drama of returning home after ten years, and reconnecting with family, friends and lovers; and the day to day workings of an assassin who is himself being targeted by more than one person.
While this mixing of tone may not work for everyone, ultimately the film is funny, charming, and entertaining. When Martin reconnects with Debi, there is a genuine chemistry between the two, which is fun to watch in all of their scenes together. The ending of the movie does not quite work for me. It is a bit frustrating to watch a movie that takes chances, and mixes tone well, kind of give up on itself in the last fifteen minutes, becoming very predictable.
The performances are great, throughout, Cusack is a unique actor. Give him the right material, and he fills a niche that nobody else could touch. Come to think of it, one could say the same about his sister, Joan, who is also good in this movie. Minnie Driver is just pitch perfect in her role. Aykroyd plays his part over the top (does he know any other way?) but it works here. Alan Arkin plays his small part so well, you would swear it was written expressly for him. This film is also a reminder that Jeremy Piven was funny before he became a total dickhead.
Director George Armitage is a bit of a mystery. He came up in the stable of young directors that got their start under Roger Corman. (I don’t think you can overstate how influential a figure Corman has been to cinema). Armitage first made a name for himself with Miami Blues in 1990, which received positive reviews, but didn’t make a ton of money. He didn’t direct again until this movie in 1997. Why the long gap? Grosse Pointe Blank would be the critical and commercial peak of Armitage’s career. Another 7 years would pass before his next film, The Big Bounce, which was panned by critics and lost a lot of money. Since then, Armitage hasn’t directed anything. Again, I don’t understand the gap. One would think he could have parleyed his success from Grosse Pointe Blank into other movie offers.
One cannot talk about Grosse Pointe Blank without talking about music. The movie features snippets of dozens of songs, predominantly 80’s New Wave. Minnie Driver’s character, Debi, is a DJ at the local radio station, which is an excuse to squeeze even more songs into the movie. The late, great Joe Strummer of The Clash scored some music for the movie as well. There is a great moment that features Guns ‘n Roses version of “Live and Let Die”, segueing into a muzak version of the same song as Cusack enters a convenience store. I’m not sure if that was Stummer’s idea or not, but it’s a subtle moment that works well. I remember seeing this in the theater with my best friend Tom, and we both laughed at this moment.
This movie turns 20 this year, and it has aged pretty well. So, if you like: John Cusack, dark comedies, 80’s alternative music, or people getting stabbed in the neck with pens, this is the movie for you. It is far from perfect, but it takes chances, and just like Martin Blank, it hits its mark more than it misses.