Starring 80s poster boy John Cusack and featuring a blistering soundtrack curated by Joe Strummer, ‘Grosse Pointe Blank’ is like John Hughes directed The Killer.
Martin Q. Blank (John Cusack) is in crisis. He’s getting sloppy at work and his friendly rivalry with colleague Grocer (Dan Ackroyd) is getting less friendly by the minute. His therapy sessions with his psychiatrist, Dr Oatman (Alan Arkin) are not giving him the catharsis he needs, and his perky personal assistant, Marcella (Joan Cusack), is getting on his nerves. Worse, an invitation to his ten year high school reunion in his affluent home town of Grosse Pointe, Michigan, has him considering the arc of his life and, worse, his relationship with Debi (Minnie Driver), the girl he abandoned on prom night.
Oh, and he’s a professional assassin. That’s worth noting.
Conceived by first time screen writer Tom Jankiewicz when he received an invitation to his own school reunion; polished by John Cusack and his regular sparring partners, Steve Pink and D. V. DeVincentis; and deftly directed by journeyman George Armitage, Grosse Point Blank draws on a lot of different influences but is defiantly its own thing: a kind of ‘80s nostalgia action romcom.
But each element is off kilter in its own unique way. It’s funny, yes, but in a very dry, self-aware, idiosyncratic Gen X manner that films that wilfully tried to capture that generational zeitgeist (Reality Bites, Empire Records) struggle with. It’s nostalgic in that it’s overtly about looking back at and reckoning with your past, but it avoids rose-tinted lenses for the most part. It’s an action movie, trading in the “ironic hitman” trope that was the style of the time (Pulp Fiction was only a few years prior), but its action beats are fully integrated into its narrative and themes. And it’s romantic as all hell; at the time the general consensus that this was a romcom for guys, a dated assessment that nonetheless isn’t without merit (pair GPB with Cusack’s later High Fidelity for a perfect double feature).
Cusack, who made his mark with ‘80s teen comedies like The Sure Thing, Better Off Dead, and especially Cameron Crowe’s empathetic debut, Say Anything, is perfect here – you could make a strong case for Martin Blank being the best performance of his career. He’s sleek and lethal in his tailored suits, wielding a gun in each fist, and he does a great line in glib witticisms, but Cusack lets us see the anxiety constantly bubbling beneath the surface. The script drops a few clues as to the nature of his trauma – his mother is confined to a psychiatric facility and it’s implied his father drank himself to death – but is never too explicit, trusting Cusack’s performance to do the heavy lifting.
Yet while Cusack his great, Minnie Driver is genuinely phenomenal as his old – and perhaps future? – girlfriend, now a radio DJ. Driver’s Debi Newberry is a fantastic creation: smart, sardonic, warm, and while initially shocked at Martin’s reappearance in her life, not willing to let him off the hook for a second.
It seems obvious to say it, but their relationship is the heart of the film – not just dramatically, but thematically. Debi is such a real person – she has a life, a past (we learn she’s been married and divorced since graduation), a job she loves, a relationship with her father (Mitchell Ryan). Martin, by contrast, is a ghost – frightened of his homicidal impulses, he skipped prom and town and went into the army, and from there to a CIA wetwork program after his “moral flexibility” was flagged on a psych evaluation. He has no family, no friends, no hobbies. He does have a cat but has never bothered to even figure out its gender – “I respect its privacy,” he quips.
This is what cool loners turn into, perhaps – just cold, lonely guys. But if Martin is a ghost, then perhaps everyone else is, too. As he catches up with various old friends over the course of his weekend in the old home town (and studiously avoids looking at the dossier of the victim he’s supposed to whack while there), we meet a menagerie of characters who seem adrift and dissatisfied, including his old best friend Paul (Jeremy Piven), now a real estate agent, high school bully Bob (Michael Cudlitz), still hung up on teenage drama, and alcoholic Amy (Ann Cusack – John brought the fam). Martin says he’s tired of killing, that he feels hollowed out by the pressures of his life, but it’s clear that everyone from the Grosse Point High Class of ’86 is unanchored. There’s a running gag where Martin straight tells his old pals he’s a professional killer, and they assume he’s joking. We’re in on it, of course, but the fact that not a single person clocks that he’s serious is telling (as is the fact that all these people seem to be having midlife crises before they hit 30).
Still, the obvious arc is Martin’s redemption and early in the proceedings Debi hangs a lampshade on the entire notion of taking stock of your life “Leave your livestock alone,” she says. But later, having witnessed Martin kill a rival assassin at the reunion (martial arts legend Benny “The Jet” Urquidez, by the way – Cusack’s kickboxing coach), she rejects her role in his narrative. “Everything about you is a lie,” she tells him. “You don’t get to have me.”
That gets walked back fairly quickly when it turns out that Martin’s target is her father, and while Martin has sworn off murder for hire, rival assassin Grocer (Dan Aykroyd is so good as the genially murderous button man) and his coterie of killers are more than happy to punch his ticket, leading to the big action finale. There’s a certain irony in Martin redeeming himself in Debi’s eyes with the violent skills that he’s sworn off and she’s repulsed by, but a) the film demands it, b) we get the wonderful sight of Martin and Grocer, in a brief moment of solidarity, riddling two interloping NSA agents (Hank Azaria and K. Todd Freeman) with bullets, and c) it leaves us with the sneaking suspicion that Martin might be less than honest about his newfound respect for life – after all, we’re more or less taking his word for it, and John Cusack is so very charming…
The whole thing is set to one of the great soundtracks of the decade, with no less a luminary than The Clash’s Joe Strummer picking the tunes. That means we get deeper and odder cuts than, say, fellow ‘80s throwback The Wedding Singer, with The Clash, The Pogues, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Cure, Faith No More, The Specials, and Echo and the Bunnymen all getting play. Two needle drops stand out as representative of Grosse Point Blank’s unique charm: Martin experiencing a kind of spiritual awakening when he looks into the eyes of an old classmate’s baby is set to Queen and David Bowie’s ‘Under Pressure’, and a convenience store shootout is set to Motorhead’s ‘The Ace of Spades’. You gotta love it.
Currently streaming on Disney+, Grosse Point Blank well and truly stands the test of time. Indeed, it’s aged like fine wine and now stands as a near-perfect slice of cult cinema that has somehow avoided reification or rediscovery. 25 years on, maybe it’s time it finally got its second shot.
Image ‘Grosse Point Blank’