Friday, March 6, 2009

Hitman High: notes on Grosse Pointe Blank (1997)

Note: I wrote this time capsule of a review back in 1997.

Grosse Pointe Blank has the kind of high concept plot that would doom most movies: a hitman returns to his high school reunion to rediscover the love of his life while still fighting other hitmen who trail him.  Fortunately for us, the film stars John Cusack, a young actor with enough clout to star in not one, but two Woody Allen films, and enough intelligence to shape a film to suit his abilities.  Cusack made a strong impression in Say Anything as a ditzy kickboxer who wins over the smartest girl in his class.  Since then, he has resisted any typecasting as the charming young swain, preferring offbeat roles like the conman he plays in The Grifters or the innocent playwright in Bullets Over Broadway.  

In Grosse Pointe Blank, we see Cusack counteract his charm with his job.  The film balances Cusack's emotional sterility against his budding warmth brought out by meeting his old high school friends.  In many ways, this is a quintessentially cold movie designed for disaffected  twenty-somethings living under the shadow of the baby-boomer generation.  The screenplay writers make frequent references to 90s-style exploitation (Cusack finds that his home has been converted into a convenience store) and contrast that with Cusack's mixed morality split between the undeniable glamour of killing people for money and the job's obvious evils.  

The charm of the film lies in its verbal wit and the glint in Cusack's eyes sometimes hidden behind dark glasses that make him look exactly like Elvis Costello.  Minnie Driver plays Cusack's old girlfriend that he left in the lurch on prom night ten years ago.  She has married and divorced since then, leaving her conveniently single for Cusack's return.  Once they rediscover each other, Minnie never really puts up much of a battle over his job; indeed she accepts him pretty quickly after seeing him murder another hitman by stabbing him in the neck with a pen (after all, he is rich).  Much of the tension of the movie is played out in more subtle ways, as old high school friends confront him with marriage, babies, clerking in convenience stores, car dealerships, and real estate.  Even Dan Akroyd want him to join a hitman union.

Cusack must choose between the freedom of isolation, and the responsibilities of commitment.  In a strange way, Cusack's job fits in perfectly with the vicious 90s-style economics confronting young men and women in a suburb of Detroit.  When he tells Minnie's rich dad that he kills for money, her dad replies "Good, there's a growth industry."

In the end, Cusack goes for the girl, and he does this in the midst of a shoot out, a perfect example of romantic detachment under fire.  The violence is gracefully choreographed, as if Cusack knows he needs it in the film to help the studio market it, but he's impatient with such visual meat and potatoes.  He even includes a huge explosion for those in the audience who find they need one.

One senses Cusack is getting too knowing to star in movies at all, hence the wry, neatly ironic vehicle he chooses here.  One part urban western, another part sly suburban satire, Grosse Pointe Blank delivers its barbs with cool precision.  

6 comments:

Jason Bellamy said...

This is one of those great Watch 20 Minutes When You Catch It On TV movies. And one of the worst. It all depends on which 20 minutes you happen to walk into.

If it involves Cusack and Driver, it's a hit. I can't remember exactly how the scene plays out, but I love the moment when they're back in her bedroom, remembering the "airplane"-playing romance of their high school days. What I love about it is the way it hints, without explicitly expressing it, the way that the First Romance of youth has this kind of magical quality that no other relationship can touch -- because both parties are young and stupid and scared, and they share the added bond (beyond attaction) of trying to figure the whole thing out together.

FilmDr said...

Good point about the romance, although I liked the film more consistently during its theatrical release than it appears you did on TV. It seems funny now to note the economic "hard times" of the 1990s. Today's troubles make that period look idyllic in comparison. I also prefer Cusack's work back then. Now he's in films like Martian Child? Although, I'm still curious about War, Inc.

Sam Juliano said...

I honestly disliked this film when I saw it upon release, and never went back to it Film Dr.
Perhaps another look may be in order in view of your respect for the film's "verbal wit" and in John Cusack's Elvis Costello-lookalike performance. (and the suggested bullseye in transcribing 90's exploitation) A second go-around would be a fair enough compromise, methinks.

As always, an authoritative piece of writing with the typical insights.

FilmDr said...

Thanks, Sam,

Perhaps I was willing to overlook the film's flaws due to my general respect for Cusack. I admire his work in Say Anything especially, but I even like his performance in old films like Sixteen Candles.

Anonymous said...

First of all: I LOVE THIS FILM! But...Hmmm...I agree on some points but not on others. As one of the vanguard of people who latched on to Elvis Costello in the late 70's (and has yet to let go), I disagree that he's that close, looks-wise. (Ever seen the English show on You-Tube w/Elvis in a neon-pink, iridescent jacket, singing "Oliver's Army"?) Most definitely NOT Martin Blank!

I am also TRYING, as one of the "Baby boomers [in whose shadows]" the Gen-X-ers languish, to understand their simultaneous joy of random hits for hire, and attacks of guilt. They've only themselves to blame for the anomie.

My 2 fave scenes are at the reunion when Martin holds that incredibly expressive baby, to the song "Under Pressure"...and then the killing of the Basque assassin, with his car-salesman ex-non-friend as a sudden accessory! Just hilarious...and delightful!

We need more films and shows (such as USA's "Burn Notice") about hit men...and about the 80's. I'd like to pair up Romy & Michele's stifled rage with Martin's what-the-f*** "Plug 'em" attitude and let it ride, a la GTA San Andreas!

BTW...ever since he separated from Hughes, Cusack RULES!

FilmDr said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Anonymous.

Can't X-ers blame everything on the Boomers?

I agree with you about the need for more hitman movies. I always find myself secretly in sympathy with hitmen, in part, perhaps due to the need to do something about overpopulation.