WFTB Score: 14/20
The plot: Vaguely troubled by his anti-social job – killing people for money – Martin Blank is persuaded to attend his 10-year school reunion in Grosse Pointe, Detroit. The trip allows Martin to catch up with Debi, his jilted love of a decade ago, but Martin’s professional rivals are determined to make the journey a busman’s holiday – possibly a very brief one.
Hitman Martin Blank (John Cusack) just isn’t enjoying his work like he used to, and it’s making him sloppy. His feisty assistant Marcella (Joan Cusack) nags at him to take a break by attending his school reunion, while terrified shrink Dr Oatman (the wonderful Alan Arkin) will tell Martin anything he wants to hear just to get rid of him. When a hit happens to come up in Martin’s hometown of Grosse Pointe he reluctantly takes the job, knowing that he’ll face a heap of questions; not least from Debi (Minnie Driver), the girl he deserted before Senior Prom back in ‘86.
Martin feels the force of DJ Debi’s pent-up anger on live radio, but that’s the least of his problems: unhappy with Martin’s rejection of joining a Union of hitmen – and being undercut – The Grocer (Dan Aykroyd) is lingering on the scene, having tipped off NSA Agents Lardner* and McCullers (Hank Azaria and K. Todd Freeman) to ‘whack’ him. There’s also a hitman called Felix out to gain retribution for an unfortunate canine catastrophe from Blank’s past. With his life already this complicated, no wonder Martin’s confused by the mundane lives of his classmates, his befuddled mother, and the fact that his family home has become a convenience store.
If the thought of a movie about professional killers being broadly played as a comedy – a romantic comedy at that – troubles you, then a bit of context might come in handy. In the wake of Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and especially Pulp Fiction (note the cardboard cut-outs in the Ultimart), it was perfectly acceptable to kill people in cold blood so long as the film acknowledged its ironic status: “Hey, I’m only a movie, there are no ‘real people’ dying here”. In this light, it’s easy to understand Grosse Pointe Blank as a smart mixture of Pulp Fiction and something like Grease, John Cusack standing in as a charismatic if melancholic John Travolta substitute. Neurotic, too: Cusack has imported some of David Shayne’s troubles from Bullets over Broadway.
Wherever it comes from, the strange brew – for the most part – works very well indeed. Thanks to a combination of a consistently clever script and a host of nimble performances (from those I’ve mentioned and others I’ve not, such as Jeremy Piven as Paul, Martin’s oafish Estate agent friend), Grosse Pointe Blank entertains throughout. Blank is marvellously awkward at trying to be normal, and normal people are awkward around him – they can’t process his honest answers, he can’t process their uncomprehending responses or the unrelenting awfulness of the reunion.
Furthermore, the appurtenances to Martin’s career are all great fun: Marcella, Aykroyd’s Grocer, the exploding Ultimart and the pissed-off (ex-)employee, the decently-staged fight with Felix. Together with the touching scene featuring Barbara Harris as Martin’s mother and the less touching one at his father’s grave, we get interesting glimpses of Martin’s past and what might have turned him into a killer.
That said, the movie can’t have it all ways. We build up a picture of an eighteen-year-old who, with a life of normality yawning ahead of him, lost the plot, took the amoral way out and found it suited him perfectly. However, while we’re admiring the cool of this emotionless marksman, the film suddenly throws the switch on Blank by presenting him with a baby that turns him, for want of a better word, gaga.
I didn’t quite believe in Martin as the ex-psycho, suddenly turned potential family man, and the film never quite recovers its poise from this moment, despite an excitingly destructive climax. Nor for that matter did I entirely believe that Debi – for all Driver’s good work – was ever a real person, rather than a collection of quippy, off-beat lines. I didn’t feel that either Lardner or McCullers deserved their demises, even if they are little more than low-grade facsimiles of Pulp Fiction’s Vincent and Jules. And couldn’t Aykroyd’s Grocer have made it out alive?
Then again, this being ironic cinema, we know perfectly well these actors are only playing – Azaria and Aykroyd have been in loads of stuff since, and Freeman has…er…well, IMDB says he was in The Dark Knight, so he must be doing fine. In the final analysis, Grosse Pointe Blank is probably too laid-back, too content with its own hipness, to be a contender for greatness. Still, it’s witty in ways most action comedies can only dream of and mostly enormous fun. If nothing else, if you’re of a certain age, you’ll love the soundtrack.
NOTES: 1 “Steven Lardner, aka ‘Steve’”, as Marcella says. My favourite line, alongside the sing-song way Debi says ‘You’re a f**king psycho’.
2 Even Blank’s name is a movie pun as much as it’s a character clue, though I’ve not see Point Blank to let you know whether it’s a good one.