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Class of 1997: ‘Grosse Pointe Blank’

by on April 26, 2017
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Professional assassin Martin Blank (John Cusack) takes cover in a convenience store shootout in "Grosse Pointe Blank," a 1997 comedy from Hollywood Pictures.

In the “Class of …” series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating either their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — six from 1997 and seven from 1987 (the extra in a forthcoming double-feature column). The rules: No Oscar nominees and no films that were among either year’s top-10 box-office grossers.

Tackling the ravages of time with a rambunctious tone, 1997’s “Grosse Pointe Blank” wraps emotional entropy and existential rumination into a clever, conceptual comedy that befits the ’90s brethren it stands beside. (It’s not quite as good as “Groundhog Day,” “Defending Your Life,” “Joe Versus the Volcano” or “Being John Malkovich,” but it’s within striking distance.)

On the verge of prom night, Martin Blank (John Cusack) – a teenager from the affluent Detroit suburb of Grosse Pointe – ghosts on his family, friends and girlfriend Debi Newberry (Minnie Driver). He joins the Army, in which he learns being all that he can be means becoming a hitman. A decade later, Martin’s edge on life (and skills) have dulled, and he decides – against his better instincts – to attend his 10-year high school class reunion … with the excuse that an assignment awaits there so why not?

There’s certainly a more cluttered, less interesting route of screwball humor, convoluted peril and action over actualization that this story could take. To wit, said worse version sort of exists in “War Inc.,” a louder and more lazily cynical spiritual sequel from 2008 also co-written by and starring Cusack as a hitman (with a different name and nowhere near a class reunion), and featuring sister Joan as his assistant and Dan Aykroyd as an antagonist. Rest assured: “War Inc.” comes nowhere close to satisfying any curiosity you may have for it.

John Cusack has called “Blank” a metaphor for the Reagan and Bush I years – namely the mercenary ethics of those within the administrations who planned wars by day and passed the peas at night. Is the movie a pierced and forked tongue wedged in the cheek of the American value to win at all costs? Perhaps tacitly, but killing people comes off more as something at which Martin merely excels and, at a level of occupational pride, has come to enjoy. This relatively apolitical approach keeps it from becoming … well, “War Inc.” and all its comparatively superficial vitriol for Bush II.

Martin’s profession is perilous. So is his presumption that indulging nostalgia will be a cure-all to restore the equilibrium that eludes him. His boyhood home? Razed for a convenience store. His mom? Tossing word salad in a mental hospital. His dad? Six feet under for seven years now, a poured-out bottle of Jameson the only paean Martin can muster for him.

Is Martin slipping or self-sabotaging toward some sort of proxy suicide? Are his half-hearted attempts at therapy – with a thinly written psychiatrist given life solely by Alan Arkin’s deadpan delivery – a way to justify that end, saying he tried and failed? And even if he is to survive and successfully woo Debi again, how is his current reality less troublesome than the one in which she was left hanging?

Martin is hardly alone in his hang-ups. His old classmates form a menagerie of missed opportunities and misanthropic regrets. There’s subdivision security guard Terry (co-writer and longtime Cusack collaborator Steve Pink), who acknowledges his badge is in no way “a meaningful symbol.” Tanya (Jenna Elfman) insists on an otherworldly near-death experience that no one takes seriously. Bob (Michael Cudlitz), a boorish jock turned coke-snorting car salesman, seems certain that he has unresolved beefs with everyone at the reunion and considers revealing any actual truth about himself to be a shameful, drunken undertaking.

High-rolling real estate king Paul (Jeremy Piven) remains chuffed that Jenny Slater, on whom he doted in high school to the point of writing essays for her, still won’t give him the time of day. Paul is the first person to whom Martin reveals his actual post-high school path. He laughs off the absurdity of Martin’s seemingly jokey exaggeration, but Martin confronts a different absurdity: What, exactly, would be a more acceptable explanation to Paul for Martin’s 10 years away? Their shared anxieties explode in an incredulous, horn-honking shout that remains the funniest bit Piven has ever gotten to play (and which seems to genuinely surprise Cusack).

Like its impeccable soundtrack, “Blank” remains vigorously uptempo, shucking and weaving around lyrical daggers of despair. From the Pompeii imagery of “Cities in Dust” and the major-key apocalypse of “99 Luftballoons” to the lone-wolf lyrics of the Clash, the inherent indecision of the Cure, and the English Beat’s “Mirror in the Bathroom” (what a modern-day Narcissus would hear before tipping into the water), there is much to exorcise and exercise amid these eminently danceable hits. (Props, too, for using a Guns ‘n’ Roses cover of “Live and Let Die” and its segueway into a chintzy Muzak version – a perfect grace note to the idea that the institutions we consider essential are often ephemeral to the larger world.)

Director George Armitage considers “Blank” to be an “over-the-top” version of the “three movies” he shot at different registers – the script, an understated take and this version – which suggests the others were perhaps just comedies in name only. Tom Jankiewicz wrote the first draft, which Kiefer Sutherland flirted with making in the early 1990s, before it landed with Cusack, Pink and D.V. DeVincentis – the team that co-wrote “High Fidelity” three years later. Armitage claims to have done as much work on the script as anyone, allegedly whittling it down from 150 pages to 102 and then encouraging on-set improvisation anyway.

Regardless of responsibility for the finished product, Armitage’s steady directorial hand – and the cast’s clear comfort with his style – is evident from the outset with its unhurried, comprehensive table-setting. The first five minutes establish Martin and his job, his rivalry with the unhinged Grocer (Aykroyd), the film’s penchant for unexpected eruptions into graphic violence, Martin’s enveloping ennui, the music cues that sneak misery into merry beats, and the basic class-reunion setup.

“Did you go to your reunion?” Martin asks his assistant, Marcella (Joan Cusack), both the angel and the devil on his shoulder. “Yes,” she says. “It was just as if everyone had swelled.” Her easy joke is the paunch we put on once youthful metabolism ends. Her subtext is the egos and regrets that fester and flare upon re-exposure to high school hierarchies. (Joan Cusack provides a glorified cameo here but earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for another inspired turn that spring, in “In & Out”; coincidentally, she competed against Driver’s own breakout performance in “Good Will Hunting” from the fall.)

“I just find it amusing that you came from somewhere,” Marcella adds, goading Martin to attend – a “somewhere” from which he fled in panic over a milquetoast plan working out too perfectly for him. The real-life analog is that we rue RSVP-ing for reunions because we worry whether our degrees of change and climb are acceptable – Too much? Not enough? None at all? – or that high school represented the peak of whatever promise we had. Just because Martin is an icily effective hitman doesn’t mean he can withstand the character assassination likely to befall him.

There are, of course, less abstract villains breathing down Martin’s neck – four, to be exact. With a haircut as severe as his profane, Revelation-quoting patter, Grocer targets Martin for snaking the Grosse Pointe job (and blowing off a hitman union he wants to form for collective bargaining purposes).

Grocer’s Plan B? Sic a pair of morally flexible NSA flaks (Hank Azaria and K. Todd Freeman) on Blank to catch him in the act and take him out. And in retaliation for a botched job in which Martin inadvertently blew up a dog, fellow hitman Felix LaPoubelle (world-champion kickboxer Benny “The Jet” Urquidez) is stalking Martin, too.

The action is light but lively, reaching a comically overwrought pitch in the finale. The best is a character-driven centerpiece in which Felix draws down on Martin in the convenience store where Martin’s home once stood. (The old living room? Now a beer cooler.) A bullet-riddled “Pulp Fiction” standee represents Disney parent-company synergy as well as a fun riff on how “Blank” shreds any idea that it’s another subpar Tarantino knockoff trying to swipe that vibe.

The shootout culminates in Felix leaving a bomb set to explode inside a microwave. Now, Martin discovers this with 15 seconds to spare and could easily just hit “Stop.” But if no lives are lost in the process, he’d rather see the convenience store burn. (The response from Duffy Taylor, as an ungrateful clerk whom he saves from the explosion, is a priceless moment of bit-part timing.)

Today, it’s a reliably regular punchline to see Cusack cashing checks for nothing parts in airless on-demand action movies for which there seems precious little demand. In 1997, this seemed like goofily ironic casting. Sure, kickboxing may have been Lloyd Dobler’s sport of the future, but could you ever picture him truly roundhousing anybody? And only an audience blissfully unaware of body doubling would have believed Lane Meyer actually navigated the K-12.

And yet when the time comes, Cusack pummels with the plausibility of more professional brawlers and boasts a persuasive two-gun swagger of snub-nosed intensity. Urquidez, who served as Cusack’s trainer, certainly earns his keep there and as a formidable foe in a fistfight near Martin’s old locker.

Overall, Martin boasts a vastly different physicality than that to which Cusack had generally accustomed us by 1997 – no longer a buddy with whom to enjoy a beer, but a resolutely unapproachable mystery, guarded and fidgeting not for the right sentiments but the right firepower. Watch how Martin positions himself in relation to others – suggesting both his issues with intimacy and his preference for easily eyed exits.

Martin assumes the attendant mystery of his dramatic re-entry (after “Detroit’s greatest disappearing act since white flight,” as an old teacher quips) will offset any evidence of malaise. But under Debi’s withering interrogation, Martin seems to instantly wilt.

With Driver, Cusack charges up the best chemistry he has had with a leading lady – the restlessness of Lloyd Dobler and Diane Court revisited upon two adults, each with a romanticized notion of what the other has been up to for all these years. Martin first re-encounters Debi, now a local DJ, in a way he has likely encapsulated her in his mind – a disembodied voice with sultry affectation. In a later scene, the red neon of her radio-station window blankets her in artificial light – illuminated but not revealed. That will take some work on Martin’s part.

“Where are all the good men dead, in the heart or in the head?” Debi asks – assuming, perhaps correctly, that Martin can’t fully engage on both fronts. And when Martin invades her studio to reintroduce himself, Debi immediately resurrects romantic feelings and resentment … but also reclamation: If a reconciliation will happen, and she at first seems more open to toying rather than tumbling with him, it will be on her terms from the goofy flirtations to the grim reckoning.

The complexity of their uncoupling (and re-coupling) is somewhat undone by the neat, abrupt nature of “Blank’s” ending – a rushed resolution that slightly betrays the intriguing inner-life edgesit indulges alongside all the bullets, bloodletting and banter.

Early on, one of Martin’s victims atypically pleads with him: “Whatever it is you’re doing that I don’t like, I’ll stop doing it.” How much does that sound, to some of us, like a promise we might have offered to more easily fit in during awkward teenage years … or placating concessions we might offer up now to save face at a reunion or mollify someone for whom our torch still burns?

Whether Martin is at the reunion or on the job, “Blank” suggests life is one endless reconciliation of opportunity costs – right down to the marginalia and M.O.s of the murders he accepts or prevents. (“If I show up at your door,” he rationalizes, “chances are good that you did something to bring me there” – a feel-better statement of dwindling returns upon which he can no longer lean by film’s end.) When people refer to “Grosse Pointe Blank” as “breezy,” that’s only because it stands its ground in a harsh wind with a hard-edged sense of humor.

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