Movie review: ‘Grosse Pointe Blank’

The killer-questioning-himself plot isn’t exactly new in cinema. Assassins questioning themselves has been done in Hollywood since almost the beginning of cinema. However, when this genre turns into a love story, too, you have something special … especially when it’s executed (no pun intended) as well as “Grosse Pointe Blank” with John Cusack and Minnie Driver. Just as the Wayans family or the Farrelly brothers are crazy-good with comedy, Cusack is crazy-good as an actor, no matter what the character. “Grosse Pointe Blank” is a stellar effort that features a stellar cast and that makes this one a must-see again or a certain-see if you haven’t caught it. You simply cannot go wrong in either case.

‘Grosse Pointe Blank’
(1997; 107 minutes; rated R; directed by George Armitage and starring John Cusack, Minnie Driver and Dan Aykroyd)

AN ASSASSIN RETHINKS HIS LIFE

(NOTE: I expanded this review with some additional trivia and opinion as well as correcting a few typos and updating some links on Jan. 2, 2016. I again expanded the review with more opinion and trivia and updated links on Oct. 11, 2017. I further expanded the review on July 2, 2019.)

John Cusack wouldn’t the type of actor, either physical or otherwise, who you’d consider to be an amoral assassin. However, as long as it is as quirky a role as you could possibly find, he does “Martin Q. Blank” in “Grosse Pointe Blank” as well as any actor could. Without a doubt, Cusak was the only actor at the time could have done justice in this quirky film with a great cast.

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Cusack is backed up with one of Dan Aykroyd’s best-ever efforts and Driver, Jeremy Piven and sister Joan Cusack give you get an A-list effort from an A-list cast of actors. Toss in support from Mitchell Ryan and Alan Arkin in smaller roles and the gang’s all here.

Actually, the thing that most elevated this film in my eyes is Aykroyd’s work. Of course (doh!), Dan is a legend in comedy, starting with “SNL.” However, his work in film can only be called “uneven.” He goes in the blink of an eye from sensational – “Trading Places” (click here for my review) – to simply putrid and embarrassing – “Caddyshack II” (click here for my review). Here, he’s nearly as good as in “Trading Places.,” and is the sole reason this one goes from really good to great. Thanks, Dan! You hit a home run with this one.

The puns are also all here, from the name of the film to some of the characters’ names.

Here’s the story …

Cusack’s “Martin Blank” (his past is invisible is the obvious pun) is a former U.S. government killer who has gone freelance, but has arrived at the crossroads: He’s questioning himself and wonder whether to continue on his path or take another. He’s seeing a shrink who doesn’t want to see him and he’s turning down some jobs (such as destroying a Greenpeace boat) because he has “scruples.”

To make up for a mistake on an assassination, he must take an assignment in his old hometown, the tony Grosse Pointe, Mich., community, where, coincidentally, his 10th annual high school reunion is being held the same weekend he must go out and kill someone.

On a parallel course, another killer, “Grocer” (another pun, grosser?) played by Aykroyd, wants Cusack to join a sort of assassins’ union or guild or whatever. Aykroyd then has a contract taken away in favor of Cusack and tries to deliver him to the government and finally tries to kill him.

Add in two over-confident federal agents who want to eliminate Cusack themselves and … whew!

However, most importantly for the film and audience, Cusack returns to Grosse Pointe and finds his old girlfriend, “Debi Newberry” played by Driver, who is a popular radio DJ and in celebration of the high school reunion is spinning an “all ’80s, all vinyl” weekend on her show.

Driver is suitably ticked at Cusack. After all, he stood her up on prom night and disappeared. Now, he appears out of nowhere, acting odd (such as always wanting to sit facing a door or window) beyond the shame he bears. Cusack and Driver have great chemistry on screen and it’s just the kind of acting you don’t order up with the director saying, “Action!”

Now, let’s take a look at some of the principal cast:

  • A Golden Globe nominee (not for this one), Cusack is smoothly good to nearly great. He’s funny as he continues to evolve from amoral to somewhat moral; he has great interaction with associates and friends; and he moves easily from one scene to the next. You really are eager to see what he’ll do next. I liked him nearly as much in “Runaway Jury” (click here for my review) and he was equally good as in “Pushing Tin” with Billy Bob Thornton. Cusack has had a career sprinkled with quirky roles that showcase his considerable talent. Oddly enough, he hasn’t been nominated for an Oscar and his Globe nomination was for “High Fidelity” (and he got a BAFTA nomination as co-writer of the screenplay). Plus, you probably remember him as a nerd in “Sixteen Candles” and a baseball player in “Eight Men Out.”
  • An Oscar nominee (not for this one), Driver plays the role perfectly of the aggrieved woman who still finds the scoundrel from her past as attractive as when he stood her up. She’s very effective in communicating and elevating her character. “Debi Newberry” would have all too easily lost, but Driver never lets that happen. It’s spot-on work from Driver, who has done work as eclectic as a few moments on screen being a horrible karaoke-singing mistress to a former Russian spy in the 007 thriller “GoldenEye” (click here for my review) to deeper work in drama that landed her the Oscar nomination for “Good Will Hunting.” She’s also been in “The Phantom of the Opera” and was nominated for a Golden Globe for TV’s “The Riches.”
  • An Oscar nominee too (not for this one), Aykroyd, as I already mentioned, plays his part of to perfection, just as he did “Louis Winthorpe III” in “Trading Places.” The scenes between him as competing hit man “Grocer” and Cusack are simply superb in both dialogue and pace, even when you wouldn’t believe they could have actual repartee at the violent climax of the film. I was certainly glad to see Aykroyd do so well here, since he is completely uneven in his cinematic career. It’s unfortunate that such a legendary performer and comedy writer will likely give you a bad performance as a good one. He was nominated for “Driving Miss Daisy” and, of course, won and was nominated for Primetime Emmy awards for writing on “Saturday Night Live” and has been in iconic comedies such as “Ghostbusters” and “The Blues Brothers.” He is less-remembered for “My Fellow Americans” (click here for my review) and was in the awful movie version of 1987’s “Dragnet” with Tom Hanks. Among his best include “Sneakers” with Robert Redford (click here for my review). The role I’m sure you don’t remember him as was “Weber” in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (blink and you missed him).
  • For her part, John’s sister and two-time Oscar nominee (not for this one) Joan Cusack does a good turn as his twitchy, quite bipolar assistant “Marcella.” One minute she’s calm and collected; the next she’s screaming into the phone at someone or doing an arson number on her office. You’ll remember her from “Sixteen Candles” and her nominations were for “Working Girl” and “In & Out.” I liked her as a naïve prosecutor in “My Blue Heaven” (click here for my review) and she has a varied career from film to TV to voicing, including as “Jessie the Yodeling Cowgirl” in “Toy Story 2” and other sequels in the franchise.
  • A Golden Globe winner (not for this one), Piven does a quietly great and somewhat restrained turn as “Paul Spericki,” Cusack’s high school buddy. He is the one who wound up selling Cusack’s mom’s home to be turned into a convenience store (great shootout scene there) and he’s a thread through the latter half of the film. Given his talent, it’s no wonder that he never stumbles. Piven would go on to show his energy on screen in HBO’s “Entourage” series and the grisly film “Smokin’ Aces.” He was solid in the movie version of “Entourage” (click here for my review) and won his Globe and three Primetime Emmy awards and got five Globe nominations and one Emmy nomination for the “Entourage” series.
  • Oscar winner (not for this one) Arkin’s part of “Dr. Oatman” is small, but effective. He’s scared of Cusack, who has forced Arkin to treat him and tells him at one point “… and I know where you live,” but still parcels out advice very reluctantly. Arkin is best known for his Oscar nominated turn in “Little Miss Sunshine” and the much lesser known (and more critically panned) for “Freebie and the Bean” (a 1974 crime comedy co-starring James Caan – click here for my review). Recently, he did really great work in this year’s less-than-competent remake of “Going in Style” (click here for my review) and was especially funny with Peter Falk in the original “The In-Laws.” He was also nominated for Oscar as far back as the 1960s for “The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming!” and “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.”

On a separate but interesting note, Jenna Elfman, a favorite of TV legend Chuck Lorre as the star of his beloved “Dharma & Greg,” appears here in her first big-screen role as “Tanya” (in a neck brace at the party). The role came after her 14 credits on TV shows including “Murder, She Wrote,” “NYPD Blue” and “The George Carlin Show.” She also made an appearance on the post-Charlie Sheen “Two and a Half Men” as “Dharma” (I didn’t see that one since the show decomposed to noxious dreck with the addition of the lame and talentless Ashton Kutcher). She was simply OK in being “Frankie” in two early episodes of the excellent version of the show.

I also liked the solid work by supporting actors playing a couple of government agents and one other competing hit man, but I’m not going to take time to review their work. It is solid, but not really noteworthy.

By the end of the film, of course, Cusack has wrapped up the loose ends (it’s not that simple, but I’ve rattled on enough), solved his problems (for now) and has a nice neat bow on it at the end with the song “Blister in the Sun” from 1983 by the “Violent Femmes” that fades to the credits.

Grosse Pointe Blank” was ranked 74th at theaters in 1997 with ticket sales of $28 million, according to Box Office Mojo. It was made on a budget of $15 million, according to Wiki, and fell far behind the No. 1 film of the year, which was (of course) “Titanic” and its titanic $600.7 million at the box office.

Not all the films I saw from that year were good. “The Jackal” (click here for my review), which is the semi-remake of “The Day of the Jackal” (click here for my review of that one), was one of those films that define “terrible” – you can just as accurately say, “Crap.” Here are the other films from 1997 that I’ve reviewed for this blog:

Some additional cast and film notes (via IMDb.com):

  • Directly from IMDb.com: “Blank’s line ‘meet the new boss’ in the diner breakfast scene is taken from ‘The Who’ song ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again.’ John Cusack is a big fan of ‘The Who.’”
  • The only member of the Cusack family NOT appearing in “Grosse Pointe Blank” is the father, Dick.
  • Directly from IMDb.com: “The camera that Martin uses at the reunion is a Minox; a miniature camera popular with cold war spies.”
  • Cusak said he saw the film as a metaphor for the Reagan/Bush years.
  • The high school shown in the film is actually in California and the only actual shot from Grosse Pointe, Mich., itself is a panning shot of Cusack driving his big black Lincoln along the shoreline.
  • Finally and directly from IMDb.com: “The director/producer originally planned to shoot the high school scenes at Grosse Pointe South High, but did not get permission from the school board. They felt that it would be inappropriate to show someone graduating from Grosse Pointe’s school system to become a hit man.” Yeah, “bad” kids never graduate from “good” schools. What a bunch of tools!
  • Click here for IMDb.com’s extensive trivia page about “Grosse Pointe Blank.”

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