REVIEW: Grosse Pointe Blank (1997)

Martin Blank (John Cusack) is a professional killer suffering a crisis of conscience. When a mission goes awry he is forced to accept an assassination job in Grosse Pointe, Michigan – a job that coincides with his 10 year high school reunion. Back in his home town for the first time since leaving his girlfriend Debbie (Minnie Driver) on prom night, Martin must face his past, make amends and avoid getting killed by at least two rival hit men in the process.

The genius of Grosse Pointe Blank is that it is about everyone. We might not all be professional killers, but we have all felt unsatisfied in our jobs and wanted to make a change. We have all dreaded going back to a high school reunion, and finding ourselves forced into competition over what we have done with our lives and how successful we have been. I suspect many of us at some point have looked around at our lives and wondered ‘how did I get here?’ Grosse Pointe Blank does an excellent job of taking those everyday concerns and framing them in the more dynamic and action-packed environs of the assassin-for-hire.

It runs a tremendous line in the absurd as well. Martin’s chief rival Grocer (Dan Ackroyd) is obsessed with setting up an assassins union. Martin employs an assistant, Marcella (a pitch-perfect Joan Cusack), who orders his ammunition as if it was stationery. A convenience store worker nearly dies in a massive in-store explosion, and is more concerned about his unemployment than the fact he almost died. It is a winning strategy for comedy: it treats the extraordinary as banal, and the ordinary as massively significant. While there are shoot-outs, brutal acts of hand-to-hand combat, and several murders, the story’s focus sticks tightly on whether or not Martin can patch things up with Debbie.

When it comes to discussing the cast, I absolutely want to begin with Minnie Driver’s performance as Debbie, because I honestly think it is the best element of the film and no one seems to fully give it due respect. She is tremendously likeable and warm, and bounces effortlessly from comedy to drama and back. The character is wonderfully scripted, because while she remains unaware of Martin’s profession she never once comes across as naive or stupid. Driver works a mean chemistry with John Cusack as well, so much so that despite his abandoning her as a teenager and ultimately becoming a professional killer you still want them to get back together.

Cusack is great as Martin, because he emphasises the character’s self-doubt and guilt over any other aspect of him. It is okay that we find his job unpleasant, because he is right there with us in disliking it. He plays such an amiable combination of emotions. His chemistry with Minnie Driver is second-to-none, and their rekindled romance really sparks with wit, soul and a very relaxed form of sexiness from which a lot of lesser romantic comedies could learn. I am a big fan of Cusack – I think this very well may be my favourite of all his roles.

The film is packed with strong supporting performances. Dan Ackroyd does a great job as Grocer, as does Alan Arkin as Martin’s terrified psychiatrist Dr Oatman. Other notable players include Hank Azaria (who should be a much more popular actor than he is), K. Todd Freeman and Jeremy Piven. I have already mentioned Joan Cusack as Marcella, but it is worth emphasising just how much comedy she draws out of a very small role.

The film’s ultimate gift is the manner in which it turns so deftly based on the content of each scene. When a murder needs to be funny, it’s hilarious. When it needs to be the opposite, it does so just as effectively. It’s an absurd story, but it feels oddly real. This is a film that we all need to be celebrating and feting much more than we currently are.

  1. I’m surprised you didn’t mention how well the music works as well. Playing (lesser known) songs from the time they were in high school gives it a nostalgic sense, without being the usual cloying sappiness that high school reunion comedies usually go for. It is easily one of my favourite soundtracks.

    Reply

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