Saturday, October 1, 2011

Grosse Pointe Blank Movie Review

Martin Blank’s biggest problem is that he’s far too intelligent, introspective and philosophical for his profession. Sure, it’s served him well for a few years after a stint in the army and a government job, but now that he’s been invited to his ten year high school reunion, he’s beginning to question his path in life. Was he right when he stood up his high school girlfriend on prom night and disappeared without a trace? Does he want more from life than simply to be a professional killer?

Yes, Martin Blank, played so congenially and mysteriously by John Cusack, is a hit man in the dark satire comedy Grosse Pointe Blank. He’s got no real moral compunction about killing people. If I show up at your door, chances are you did something to bring me there, he rationalizes. His therapist (Alan Arkin), who doesn’t want to treat him anymore knowing what he is, thinks it will be good for him to go home. So does his assistant Marcella (Joan Cusack), who finds it “amusing that [Martin] came from somewhere,” which illustrates an interesting point – professional killers all grew up somewhere and were at one time angsty teenagers. We don’t often get admitted to that part of the story.

Conveniently, he’s got a contract for a job in his home town of Grosse Pointe, Michigan, so he can kill two birds with one stone, so to speak. Also in town is his professional rival, Grocer (Dan Aykroyd), who is trying to put together a union for their profession. Martin prefers the lone gunman lifestyle. Why would someone in such an anti-establishment profession want to be part of a totally establishment collective? Grocer wants Martin out of the way, so he’s tipped off the Feds to Martin’s contract on a Federal whistleblower. And there’s an additional guy roaming the streets who’s there just to cause problems and add more nihilistic chaos to Martin’s life.

But foremost on Martin’s mind is Debbie (Minnie Driver), the girl he left behind all those years ago. She’s still in town and has her own radio show. Martin drives by the station to watch and listen. Later he asks her to go as his date to the reunion. Is he a reliable date? Of course she doesn’t know what he does. There’s an amusing running gag that has Martin telling people straight out what he does for a living, but they all think he’s being ironic and play along with the joke: “Good for you. It’s a growth industry;” “Do you have to do post-graduate work for that or can you just jump right in?”

Martin spends a lot of time reflecting on himself and how to relate to the people from his past. One of the first things he does when he’s back in town is visit his old high school. He bumps into one of teachers and has politely awkward conversation. Of course this is one of the first things we used to do during our first year or two away at college on a visit home. Martin comes to it about 8 or 9 years too late. This is another funny repetitive theme as he continues to return to places that were once familiar. He goes to his old locker and digs out a crumbly old joint. He tries to visit his childhood home and finds, to his great shock and dismay, that it’s been turned into an Ultimart and he accosts the clerk, “What are you doing here?” He promptly phones his psychiatrist and leaves a voicemail for him, “We can never go home again.” That line is Martin’s conundrum. He’s been gone for ten years yet he wants things to go back to the normal he experienced before. When you disappear from a place for an extended period of time you sort of want and even expect that everything will remain the same. Places don’t get frozen in time except in our own minds. Part of Martin’s growth as a character is learning that unfortunate truth.

The success of the film really stems less from director George Armitage than from the screenplay by Cusack, Steve Pink, Tom Jankiewicz, and D.V. DeVincentis, which is packed with witty dialogue, rarely relying on throwaway one-liners. Highlights include the initial meeting between Martin and Grocer as they circle each other suspiciously, each ready to draw a weapon on the other if they sense a threatening move; and an encounter with an old classmate, a drunken lout who finds a hilarious outlet for his unchecked aggression. But the story functions because of the easy chemistry between Cusack and Driver. They readily convey a sense of history between Martin and Debbie as well as the feeling that they can almost pick up where they left off, if only Debbie’s hurt feelings weren’t getting in the way.

The small action set pieces are Armitage’s biggest contribution as director. There’s a shootout in a convenience store and a swift and brutal hand-to-hand combat sequence, allowing Cusack to show off his kickboxing skills acquired through his involvement with Say Anything… in 1989, that are well-shot and executed. The big climax, the final confrontation that brings all the elements together, is a shootout in Debbie’s house. It’s fun and comical and violent, but it feels like an insufficient finale to a film that, prior to that scene, was more interested in staying off the beaten path rather than following the action movie formula guide of closing with an elaborate spectacle. Regardless, it’s not enough to detract heavily from one of my favorite light distractions of the 90s.

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