20 Years On 'Grosse Pointe Blank' Remains a Goddamn Masterpiece And If You Don't Like It You're Wrong
It was 10 years ago yesterday that George Armitage’s glorious John Cusask vehicle Grosse Pointe Blank was first released in US cinemas.
Yes sir, April 11th, 1997.
10 years ago yesterday.
No, fuck you, 1997 is not 20 years ago. Anything in the 90’s is, and will forever be, 10 years ago. It is known, and don’t you dare say otherwise.
Grosse Pointe Blank, the brisk tale of a jaded, existentially challenged hitman who goes back to his 10 year—aww, just as long a gap as between the movie and this—high school reunion is a film so fantastically of its time, a time capsule so overflowing with 90’s flavor, that it really just should not work at all today.
And yet it still works absolutely perfectly, remaining a stone-cold classic and compelling anyone who disagrees to find themselves a moldy corner in which to park their erroneous arse and stew in wrongness and silence.
The rest of us? We know:
Grosse Pointe Blank remains a goddamn masterpiece.
But it’s sometimes fun to be reminded of the reasons why.
Reason The First: John Cusack as the existentially angsty hitman
1997 John Cusak was near enough peak John Cusack. Lloyd Dobler had boom-boxed his way into popular consciousness just under a decade prior and the conception of Cusack was still very much aligned with that template: emotional, sensitive, angsty.
A soppy little twat in other words.
The genius of Grosse Pointe Blank was to take that perception and to warp it and hone it and to turn it into something much darker. Cusack’s Martin Blank might still fundamentally be a sentimental little doe, but he’s a doe that’ll stab the president of Paraguay with a fork, how have you been? He’s a killer. He kills for money, and he’s good at it. But all that killing will catch up to ya, and when Grosse Pointe Blank opens we find Martin starting to feel the first dreadful shudders of…well, feeling — and he’s realising that the experience is beginning to exact a toll on his mortal soul.
So, it’s 1997 and you want to cast a remorseless and professional killer whose professionalism is starting to fray and for whom the spectre of remorse is starting to loom. See, I don’t know about you, but my first thought wouldn’t have been: ‘Get John Cusack on the phone!’
I would have been wrong.
Because Cusack? He fucking nails it.
Reason The Second: That soundtrack
Even aside from that gorgeous, Joe Strummer(!)-penned original score, Grosse Pointe Blank is an absolute embarrassment of riches when it comes to music. Here, a random cross-section:
The fact that Minnie Driver’s character is a local radio DJ hosting a throwback weekend in honour of the town school’s ten-year reunion and we see her actually physically spinning these records is a cherry on top of an already delicious cake.
And speaking of Minnie Driver…
Reason The Third: That dynamite supporting cast
I’m not saying that Driver’s Debi Newberry is exactly a boundary-busting role for a woman, but for 1997 it ain’t half bad. Debi, abandoned by Martin at prom night, is witty, effervescent, and simultaneously tough and vulnerable, and Driver nails the character. When Marty rolls into town and walks into her live broadcast mid-song as if nothing had happened and a decade hasn’t passed since they last saw each other, the interaction between the two is pitch perfect. The bastard knows he fucked up, and she does not for a minute let him forget just how much he fucked up. There’s an entire story told in body language alone in that scene and the framing of it is the proverbial tits.
Cusack and Driver’s chemistry is the glue that binds the movie together, and the playful repartee they trade in has a touch of Old Hollywood about it. It’s great.
Then we have the two bickering NSA agents that tail Marty into town: Hank Azaria’s Steven Lardner and K. Todd Freeman’s Kenneth McCullers.
Hoping to catch Blank in the middle of an illegal act and take him down, the two agents appear at various times bored with their assignment, thrilled to be tailing someone, and just along for shits and giggles. Brushing their teeth and shaving in the car, getting made pretty much immediately by Blank, prank calling Debi’s station to intimidate Blank, where is the spin-off about Lardner and McCullers? I’d watch the shit out of that shit.
Especially if they were paired with the demented genius that is Dan Aykroyd’s rival assassin, Grocer.
Grocer is a ridiculous over-the-top creation that should not work, but Aykroyd conjures magic with him. Perpetually popping pills and barking an inexplicable catchphrase (‘Popcorn!’), Grocer has a chip on his shoulder: Blank, contemptuous of his professional nemesis, won’t join the nascent assassin’s union that Grocer is trying to build. So what other options does a frustrated hitman have other than…—well, that old saying comes to mind about everything looking like a nail to a man with a hammer. The bile that flies in both directions between the two—both professional and personal, and always threatening to spill over into full on violence—is a delight to behold.
Bing, bing, bing, popcorn!
Counter to Aykroyd’s live wire Grocer is probably the greatest therapist ever depicted on the big screen: Alan Arkin’s Dr. Oatman.
Man, this dude. This poor dude. Not only does he have to listen to John Cusack whining at him, he has to do it with the knowledge of Cusack’s deadly profession, and the paralysing fear that this brings to him.
The bit of dialogue that outlines the nature of their relationship is screenwriting gold and it’s an exchange worth quoting in full:
Blank: Don’t you think that maybe you’re just upset because I told you what I do for a living, and you got upset and *you’re* letting it interfere with *our* dynamic?
Dr. Oatman: Whoa. Martin. You didn’t tell me what you did for a living…
Blank: Yes, I did!
Dr. Oatman: You didn’t tell me what you did for a living for *four* sessions. *Then* you told me. And I said, “I don’t want to work with you any more.” And yet, you come back each week at the same time. That’s a difficulty for me. On top of that, if you’ve committed a crime or you’re thinking about committing a crime, I have to tell the authorities.
Blank: I know the law, okay? But I don’t want to be withholding; I’m very serious about this process.
Blank: And I know where you live.
Dr. Oatman: Oh, now see? That wasn’t a nice thing to say; that wasn’t designed to make me feel good. That’s a… kind of a… not too subtle intimidation, and I, uh, get filled with anxiety when you talk about something like that.
Blank: Come on, come on. I was just kidding, all right? The thought never crossed my mind.
Dr. Oatman: You did think of it, Martin! You thought it, and then you said it. And now, I’m left with the aftermath of that, thinking I gotta be creative in a really interesting way or Martin’s gonna blow my brains out! You’re holding me hostage. That’s not right.
Dr. Oatman is a hilarious role just in and of itself, but in Arkin’s hands—and especially via Arkin’s voice—it becomes something transcendental. Trapped completely, Dr. Oatman both tries to follow his professional creed and help Martin, as well as the same time trying to listen to his personal instincts and hinder him. The ensuing stalemate of motivations, channelled through Arkin, is one of the best things about Grosse Pointe Blank.
Also, Jeremy Piven shows up in this movie!
Listen, before he fully metamorphosed into ultimate douchemode, Piven was capable of delivering performances like Paul Spericki, Martin Blank’s old friend from high school who bumps into the hitman early on during his return to town. Piven is great here. He’s funny, full of pathos, and the way he jumps to Marty’s aid near the climax of the movie is fantastic. Put it this way: If you haven’t got a friend who will help you wrap a corpse in a banner and dispose of it in a furnace before asking any serious questions then sorry, you haven’t got a friend.
Joan Cusack plays Martin’s secretary, seemingly flown in from several different genre flicks, and who makes faces like this:
(P.S. If you look out for them you can get a mean hand of Cusack Bingo watching Grosse Pointe Blank. Everyone barring the patriarch, Dick, is in it: John, Joan, Ann, and Bill all feature. It’s like a goddamn clown car.)
Reason The Fourth: That script
I hate to just quote-splurge all over this, but…
Dr. Oatman: Don’t kill anybody for a few days. See what it feels like.
Blank: Alright, I’ll give it a shot.
Dr. Oatman: No, don’t give it a shot! Don’t shoot anything!
Marty: Debi’s house.
Paul: Kinda crept up on you, didn’t it?
Marty: No, you drove us here.
Paul: [pause] Yep.
Debi: You’re a psychopath.
Marty: No, no. Psychopaths kill for no reason. I kill for *money*. It’s a *job*. That didn’t come out right.
Marty: I’m sorry if I fucked up your life.
Debi: It’s not over yet.
[Marty and Grocer are shooting each other]
Grocer: Comrade! Comrade!
Grocer: Why don’t you just join the union, we’ll go upstairs together and cap daddy!
Marty: This union, there’s gonna be meetings?
Grocer: Of course!
Marty: No meetings.
[They continue shooting]
McCullers: You got any ideas how you wanna wax this guy?
Steve: Can’t you just say ‘kill’? Ya always gotta romanticize it.
I could keep going. In the post-Tarantino 90’s the market was flooded with rat-a-tat hyper verbal screenplays, most of which missed the point entirely behind the success of QT’s work: the characters. It’s easy to forget that Tarantino’s dialogues are delivered by pretty well fleshed out individuals. The cheap imitators that followed him often never bothered to imbue their script-delivery devices with any other traits, any personalities. That is not the case in Grosse Pointe Blank. The screenplay, by Tom Jankiewicz, D.V. DeVincentis, Steve Pink, and John Cusack is funny, sharp, and remains true to its characters—wild, colorfully drawn characters that nevertheless resonate with humanity. That’s why it works, and that’s why the movie overall sings.
So if you’re stuck with something to watch over the weekend, stop being stupid and just pop on Grosse Pointe Blank. You know it makes sense.
Bing, bing, bing, popcorn!