Let’s Talk About ‘Grosse Pointe Blank’ (1997)

“You’re a handsome devil. What’s your name?”

Why the Hell is Grosse Pointe Blank in the Canon?

If you’re asking this, it’s probably because you haven’t seen it. Except Kane – he legit hates most things. Still, I can see why it would be a surprise to some, but to me it’s always been one of the classic 90s films, a romantic comedy with teeth (and guns) and a killer soundtrack. When I think of Grosse Pointe Blank (which happens fairly often) I think of the Clash’s “Rudy Can’t Fail,” epic fight scenes in high-school hallways, Jeremy Piven shouting “Ten YEARS!,” and John Cusack pulling the slide back on a Glock 17 while saying “This is me breathing.” And then I immediately want to watch it again. It’s a film that trades on a cynicism about the care-free 1980’s while also indulging in nostalgia and appreciation for the same. It also marks Cusack’s transition from teen icon to a more complicated, evolving actor (and producer). It’s not a perfect film – that happy ending is the most unbelievable part of a film that includes a world-wide network of hit men run by Dan Aykroyd, of all people – but it’s damn close, and so full of great moments (and music) that I’ll happily defend its inclusion with my dying breath. Just don’t come at me with a pen.

What Grosse Point Blank Means to Us

It’s been years since I’ve seen this flick and I should probably revisit it one of these days. I remember the first time I watched it … I had just moved to Chicago from NJ and met a girl from one of my classes. We started hanging out and one day we were decided to watch this. Jokingly in the opening flyover sequence of Chicago I said, “Oh hey look it’s your apartment building!” Then we watched the sequence again and it WAS her apartment building. Anyway that really doesn’t have much else to do with the movie. I remember enjoying the hell out of it and thought John Cusack was really onto something with this film. I could have seen a couple of sequels to it if the cards were played right, but that never happened. Well I suppose War, Inc. is considered an informal sequel, but I never saw it so I can’t really say. It’s also got one helluva soundtrack to it and that is always a plus in my book.

 –K. Alvarez

The Gen-X Class Reunion

“It was just as if everyone had swelled.”

The Baby Boomers got the Big Chill and Peggy Sue Got Married, Millenials got American Pie Reunion and… what, Most Likely to Die? (I’m sure there have to be other Millenial reunion films, right?) Generation X got Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion and Grosse Pointe Blank. While Romy and Michelle’s has it’s own cheesy glories, Grosse Pointe is the one that sticks in my mind like that pen in LaPoubelle’s neck.

Reunion movies are always excuses to reflect on the “glory days” and examine how far we’ve come. For Gen X (of which I am a lifetime member) the 1990’s were a time of unexpected anger and introspection. The glory days – those bright, cheery lights of the 1980’s – had masked the latchkey kids, the Savings & Loans, the AIDs epidemic and more. Then the 90’s started off with economic anxiety and armed conflict. The world as promised didn’t match reality and it was difficult to see the past without the shadows, and the present without the compromises. You saw this anger and disappointment in music (Grunge) and literature (like Fight Club and The Virgin Suicides – another story set in Grosse Pointe, by the way).

Grosse Pointe Blank started as a story by screenwriter Tom Jankiewicz who wrote it as a way of dealing with his own anxiety about going to his 10 year class reunion and he based many of the characters on real-life friends from high school. John Cusack had been looking for a project to produce (with longtime friends Steve Pink and D. V. DeVincentis) and move his career past the teen comedies that had defined it. The story of a hit man going to his reunion and attempting to reconnect with his high school sweetheart resonated, and Cusack et al (and director George Armitage, though he’s uncredited) rewrote much of the story.

The film plays with the classic romantic comedy formula, with the prodigal son with a secret returning to rekindle an old romance and learning important lessons about family, home and friendship. In Grosse Pointe Blank, however, this is (mostly) turned on its head. Martin’s home is gone, replaced by a mini-mart. His mother is suffering from dementia in a nursing home. And, of course, Martin is a contract killer, albeit one with a suspicion of a conscience, doubling his reunion appearance with a contract to kill someone in town. Things go well until the third act setback, which brings Martin’s secret out into the open and leads to a lot of bloody violence. Martin’s secrets can get him killed, you see, and threaten the lives of everyone around him. That this is played primarily for laughs doesn’t really negate the fact that it’s the unexamined darkness in Martin’s life that threatens to destroy his present happiness. The film sets up an ending where that darkness – the choices made by a younger man – ruins everything he hopes to achieve by coming back home. Martin really only makes superficial changes – though with the hope and promise of more – and that’s a feather on a scale balanced against a decade of murder. That the movie flinches and instead rewards Martin with a new life and the girl of his dreams always feels like a wrong note to me, though I love the characters so much I’m still kinda happy they end up together.

Not Lloyd Dobler

“It’s not me.”

Lloyd Dobler didn’t end up with Diane Court – he changed his name to Martin Q. Blank and ended up joining “that corporation” – the army – before becoming a killer for hire.

Sort of.

It’s hard not to look at Grosse Pointe Blank as an evolution of the kind of characters that John Cusack became famous for playing in the 1980’s. The oddball idealist whose self-involvement and certainty bordered on (but never quite crossed into) narcissism. Guys whose moral core made them outsiders and, eventually, won them the day (and often the girl) against the status quo and the morally bankrupt.

Martin, on the other hand, is a man who looks into his heart and finds a hole – a “certain moral flexibility” as he says in the film. Where Cusak’s 80’s roles revolved around an almost weaponized level of positivity – where belief in yourself carries the day – Martin is crippled by self-doubt. “I always felt temporary about myself as a person,” he says. He goes to therapy (with a terrified therapist played by the great Alan Arkin), he contemplates leaving the business, and grapples with the idea that there might be a purpose to the universe. Instead of saying “here is who I am, and I am worthy,” Martin asks “here’s who I want to be, is that enough to forgive who I have been?”

Not Diane Court

“You don’t get to have me!”

Though Debbie Newberry and Diane Court both come from upper-class circumstances, with fathers who have questionable ethics, Minnie Driver’s ascerbic, witty and self-possessed Debbie is a person who has gone through trauma, been broken and put herself back together. Ione Sky’s Diane is an essential innocent, a warm-hearted truly good person who is just as strong in her own way as Lloyd. I appreciate the character (and the performance) a lot more now than I did when I first saw the film, but she’s still a character who experiences the first real darkness in her life with the love and support of her boyfriend. Debbie wasn’t so lucky.

In the decade since prom night, when Martin abandoned her with her $700 dress, Debbie has gotten married, gotten divorced and worked through a dark night of the soul where she blamed herself. Martin, when she sees him again, is just starting on that journey. He’s just figured out that he’s broken, or “mildly sprained,” at least. In this relationship Debbie is the one in control and the one that marks the tempo of possible redemption. “You can’t come in,” she says when Martin shows up at her door. “You can come in,” she says a moment later.

I love Minnie Driver in this role – she’s quirky, strong, broken, put together and a moral center that’s missing from almost everyone else in the film. Her confrontation with Martin after the revelation that all of his jokes about being a hit man aren’t jokes, is fantastic and SHOULD have informed the rest of the film. “How come you never learned that it was wrong?” The anguish and disgust on her face are palpable and that moment is as heartbreaking for Martin – and us – as it is for her.

That Soundtrack

Holy shit, this soundtrack. An eclectic mix of punk rock, new wave and ska from The Violent Femmes to Echo and the Bunnymen to The Specials and – especially – The Clash. The cinematic score was actually by Joe Strummer, co-founder of The Clash, and his punchy compositions blend seamlessly into the aural character of the film. The music often does the heavy lifting of internal characterization, especially for Cusack’s Blank, a character whose surname is both a pun and a descriptive. Martin is barely capable of expressing even the most basic of emotions, and so the music lets us know, for instance, that “the battle is getting harder” as he makes his first foray back into the town of his birth (with “Armagideon Time”) and that “love dares you to change our way of caring about ourselves” (“Under Pressure”) as he stares into baby Robbie’s eyes during the reunion.

The songs in Grosse Point function almost like a Greek Chorus, informing and adding another layer of meaning to each scene. It’s well worth the time to watch it while paying attention to the lyrics – it’s almost like a musical commentary track.

The sound track was popular enough (reaching 31 on the Billboard Top 200 chart) that they actually released a second collection of songs from the film (telling you just how packed with great music the film was). There were still over a dozen songs used in the film that didn’t make it onto a release.

That Fight Scene

“Take care of yourself, Ken. Thank you for the pen.”

After some of the most touching and emotionally satisfying moments of the film – including a confrontation with the school bully that turns into a poetry reading and a lovely scene with Martin and Debbie in the balcony above the reunion – reality comes crashing back into Martin’s world. Another assassin sent to kill him (played by famed kickboxer – and Cusack’s long-time trainer – Benny “The Jet” Urquidez) confronts Blank in a high school hallway in one of the best, underappreciated fight scenes in film. It’s short, brutal, bloody and the violence is so realistic that it makes the rest of the film seem like a fairy tale. (This scene also, incidentally, is another connection to Lloyd Dobler, he of the professional kickboxer aspiriations.) Cusack and Urquidez had trained together for years, and they put real dents in those lockers, knocking each other around. The ending cements the viciousness, with Martin popping the cap off a gift pen and stabbing it deep into the assassin’s neck. When Debbie comes around the corner to find a bloodied Martin crouched over the body we can almost feel her world shifting, collapsing, because we feel it too.

Much as I love this fight scene, I’m equally a fan of the aftermath when old friend Paul (Jeremy Piven) helps Martin dispose of the body, wrapping it up in a hallway banner that reads “The Future is Unwritten.” (A quote from the Clash album Know Your Rights.)

Final Thoughts

“Where are all the good men dead, in the heart or in the head”

I’ve rambled on about this film and still not mentioned Joan Cusack‘s performance as Marcella, Martin’s PA and aide-de-camp, or Dan Akroyd’s turn as fellow assassin and gung-ho union organizer, Grocer, one of his best comedic performances. I didn’t talk much about Alan Arkin as Martin’s therapist, Dr. Oatman, but he kills it (sorry) as well. There are dozens of moments, big and small, that I glossed over or forgot to mention (like Martin visiting his father’s grave only to pour a bottle of whiskey on it before walking away, or how “Live and Let Die” blares on the soundtrack only to turn into the Muzak version when Martin enters the mini-mart that used to be his childhood home). I didn’t even talk about how it’s my head canon that John Wick is Martin all grown up (he’s lost a woman that got him out of the life AND they have similar taste in clothes – though Wick owns a dog, not a cat like Martin). It’s also a film that crosses over genres and one that both my wife and I love to death. We quote it to each other all the time. One of my favorite exchanges with her about any activity we are about to take part in:

Her: “Will there be meetings?”
Me: “Of course!”
Her: “No meetings.”

Grosse Point Blank is a fantastic film that satisfies on multiple levels. It’s a romance, it’s a comedy, it’s a thriller, it’s a satire, it’s just plain good. More than worthy of it’s inclusion in the Canon. If you haven’t seen it, I urge you to check it out. If you HAVE seen it, don’t you want to see it again? I know I will – and I’ll probably be jamming to the soundtrack during work today.

 

Author: Bob Cram

Would like to be mysterious but is instead, at best, slightly ambiguous.