The story being told behind the prickly, darkly comic narrative of George Armitage’s Grosse Pointe Blank is one of stasis and its numbing emotional effects. It’s an idea distinctly tailored to John Cusack, who’s proven most effective, following his iconic role as outsider heartthrob Lloyd Dobler in Say Anything…, playing men stuck in the obsessive hobbies and preoccupations of their youth. The struggles of adulthood, however, don’t suit him: He has an elemental restlessness, an inner, raging silliness that defies the somber and grim realities that often characterize adulthood or the common activities of adults. It’s why his Edgar Allan Poe in The Raven is laughable and his overgrown delinquent in Hot Tub Time Machine is oddly moving.
As contract killer Martin Blank, the quasi-eponymous character of Armitage’s film, Cusack hits his sweet spot and gives the role a self-reflexive depth that the script doesn’t always provide. Returning to his hometown of Grosse Pointe, Michigan for his high school reunion and a quick assassination, Martin is already amid a class-five midlife crisis, and its clear from the outset that the former obligation is setting him further on edge.
It’s a personal journey spurred by a professional impasse: One of Blank’s biggest rivals, Grocer (a giddily sadistic Dan Aykroyd), wants to create a consortium of top-grade hitters, essentially making their profession partially unionized. It’s not for Blank, who clearly prefers the solitary existence his career not only allows but depends on, but Grocer retaliates by both sending a pair of government spooks (Hank Azaria and K. Todd Freeman) and a ruthless brother-in-arms, La PuBell (kickboxing master Benny Urquidez), after Blank.
Both Armitage and the writers (Cusack, Tom Jankiewicz, D.V. DeVincentis, and co-star Steve Pink) could be seen as taking a risk by congesting the narrative with so many nemeses, but the script smartly avoids overplaying its crossed wires. In fact, like Blank, Grocer and the two spooks spend a great deal of the film discussing or expressing the way in which they approach their grave occupations, often pulling pranks, making morbid, outrageous jokes, or taking drugs to cope with boredom, social isolation, and moral numbness that both drove them to and is exasperated by what they do.
For Blank, the pills don’t really do it for him anymore and his weekly visits to his paranoid psychiatrist (Alan Arkin) are only marginally effective, seeing as the psychiatrist thinks Blank might kill him. But he glimpses at salvation when reunited with Debi (a fantastic Minnie Driver), his erstwhile high school sweetheart whom he abandoned on prom night, after feeling the first tremors of his killing urge. Driver and Cusack boast excellent chemistry, and the script cathects the connection between Blank and Debi by adding detail to Debi’s own sense of stasis: She’s remained in Grosse Pointe her entire life and makes a living revisiting her favorite tracks from her adolescent era as a radio DJ. One of the film’s best scenes involves her grilling Blank about abandoning her and hiding his past while on the air.
Armitage gives a modestly expressive polish to a number of scenes, one of the most memorable of which has Blank battling La PuBell—Urquidez was discussed in Say Anything… and later taught Cusack kickboxing—in a locker-strewn hallway to the nervy pulse of the Beat’s “Mirror in the Bathroom.” Still, he keeps his aesthetic largely safe and well composed, even as the script indulges in fits of violence, murder, and furious, unwieldy emotions; the film has a refreshingly unburdened attitude toward blood, death, and sexual desire. An ace supporting cast, headed by Joan Cusack as Blank’s secretary and Jeremy Piven as his high school buddy, keeps the film vibrantly alive with notions of corroded nostalgia, the trials of age, and the inherent lameness of adulthood.
The narrative sports a healthy dose of cynicism, but not enough to dismantle the central fascination with the character and his journey, unlike Grosse Pointe Blank‘s “unofficial sequel” War, Inc., a sit-back-and-take-it pseudo-comic harangue of every liberal hot-button issue currently on record. Rather, Grosse Pointe Blank works as a sequel of sorts to Say Anything…, even more so than High Fidelity, in that we eventually see that spark of hope, ambition, and caring that must have attracted Debi to Blank in the first place, but only after the laborious shedding of arthritic misanthropy and violent gloom. Soaked in other men’s blood, Blank closes the film properly with a marriage proposal that feels both completely preposterous and heartfelt, delivered with the same surge of emotion and hesitancy as a paroled criminal’s first words after coming home to his old lady.
Though not a banner release from the Disney/Buena Vista camp, the Blu-ray release of Grosse Pointe Blank boasts a strong A/V transfer. Colors are bold, textures of clothing and interiors—the hallway at the reunion, for instance—look great and black levels are nice and inky. It's not a huge jump forward from the film's DVD release, but there are more than a handful of notable upgrades. The audio is equally on the level, with Joe Strummer's expectedly hummable original music, sound effects and wild noise, and a bevy of '80s pop songs mixed and balanced well behind the clear, crisp dialogue.
Buena Vista does a solid job with this A/V presentation of George Armitage's deceptively breezy dark comedy, but doesn't put single extra in their crosshairs.