From: Subject: Date: April 21, 2005 3:53:51 PM CDT Hankblog

Thursday, May 13, 2004

Movie Retrospectives: Professional Killers
Grosse Pointe Blank

They all have husbands and wives and children and houses and dogs, and, you know, they've all made themselves a part of something and they can talk about what they do. What am I gonna say? "I killed the president of Paraguay with a fork. How've you been?"

Martin Q. Blank

It's often been said you can't go home again. Once you leave, both you and the place you left from have been altered forever. The same could be said for the people you leave behind. Second chances are rare. It's rarer still when those second chances actually work better than the first go around. All of which is why Grosse Pointe Blank is such a delightfully deviant movie coached around the concept of professional killers.

John Cusack is Marty Blank. Ten years ago, Marty left the girl of his dreams (Debi Newberry, played to the hilt by Minnie Driver) standing on Prom Night. He bailed to join the army, where his "moral flexibility" makes him an ideal candidate for training to become an assassin. Now out of the army and in business for himself, Martin finds himself haunted about the road not taken, and where it might have led him.

It seems particularly poignant to wonder about that given his current work circumstances. He finds himself at odds with a competing killer named Grocer (Dan Akroyd, in the best thing he's done in years). Grocer wants to establish a sort of killers' union for stronger bargaining potential. It's the sort of work conflicts you and I might deal with at some point, except where Blank and Grocer are concerned, the conflicts usually end with somebody dead.

Martin gets a chance to try and resolve all of his personal emotional issues when he gets an invite to his ten year class reunion. Will Debi be there? Can he make things up to her? Can he get Grocer off his back? All of these questions and more get answered along the way.

Two years before Tony Soprano made it stylish for killers to talk to shrinks to try and resolve their issues, this movie took the concept and made some really funny hay out of it. Martin has a very strange working relationship with his shrink Dr Oatman (Alan Arkin). As he tries to work out his regrets about the past with Oatman's help, it works towards some of the best lines in the whole movie. At one point, upon learning his former home is now a Quickie Mart, Blank calls Oatman to try and work out the issues created by this revelation:

I, I'm standing where my, uh, living room was and it's not here because my house is gone and it's an Ultimart! You can never go home again, Oatman... but I guess you can shop there.

The scene is accompanied by one of the best musical transitions in recent film, as the cacophony of Guns 'N Roses cover of Live and Let Die melds into a Muzak'd version of same as Martin walks into the Ultimart. It's funny, surreal, and a little sad, all at the same time.

Unlike Prizzi's Honor, which also tried to explore the world of love and the professional killer, this movie succeeds strongly because of the very hot chemistry between the two leads.

Driver plays Minnie with all sorts of sexual energy and very bitter frustration. As the local DJ, she really makes her voice work for radio. But when she comes face to face with Martin for the first time in ten years, she really makes him work hard to get back in her good graces after all she'd been through trying to get over him. It makes the passion between her and Martin very palpable. They really spark in their exchanges, in such a way that I would really like to see the two work together again.

By the same token, Martin's relationship with his secretary Marcella (Cusack's real life sister Joan) also has some real spark. Though they don't play brother and sister on the screen, Martin and Marcella have a very strong, but at times adversarial relationship. The back and forth the exchange over the phone is dryly funny in all the right ways.

None of this would work nearly as well if it didn't have a really brilliant screenplay to work from. The screenplay was a collaborative effort from Tom Jankiewicz, D.V. DeVincentis (who wrote the equally sharp Cusack picture High Fidelity), Steve Pink (who also co-wrote High Fidelity), and Cusack himself from a story by Jankiewicz. Normally having that many hands all over a screenplay would be a recipe for disaster. Instead this movie has so much subtle strength going for it in so many ways.

I still remember seeing this movie in the theater and being amazed at just how strong it was. It had me laughing in all the right places, and at the same time showed the Cusack has more than enough grit and strength to pull off an action lead. He has a hand to hand combat scene with a killer sent to bump him off that is really strong without being flashy. And the gunfight between Cusack, Akroyd, and his henchman to close out the final act is a hell of a lot of fun (side note: Akroyd had me howling with his rendition of "She'll Be Coming Round the Mountain" that he sings to Martin as he enters the house).

This is just a really sharp, funny, smart movie that takes a concept that might seem absurd on its face and completely stands it on its ear. You will not find many better low budget action comedies anywhere. A must see if you're looking for something just a little off the wall. And Cusack and Driver make it a more than serviceable date movie to boot.

Tomorrow, we close with the same director we opened with. Luc Besson's La Femme Nikita to close out the professional killers for the week.