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Holy Hell! Grosse Pointe Blank Turns 20

Holy Hell! Grosse Pointe Blank Turns 20

Twenty years has done Grosse Point Blank no favors.

Facebook killed the high school reunion, or at least that’s what the hundreds of online think pieces on the subject will tell you. But in the early days of the internet, high school reunions still proved fertile ground for quirky comedy, so much so that 1997 spawned two such films: Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion and the John Cusack vehicle Grosse Pointe Blank. The latter of these added the heavy-handed twist that Cusack’s character is a loveable contract killer who stood up his prom date on the night of the big dance and disappeared from the quaint Detroit suburb for the next decade. Guess where his next target just so happens to be?

Despite nobody from his hometown knowing his whereabouts, Martin Blank (Cusack) receives a reunion invite delivered to his office. Like any good hitman, he has a secretary (Joan Cusack), who goads him to attend. It doesn’t take much convincing, since his next contract is located conveniently nearby and he’s still got the hots for Debi Newberry (Minnie Driver), his jilted high school flame. Plus, he’s trying to dodge a fellow assassin named Grocer (Dan Aykroyd), who’s trying to strongarm the lone wolf Martin into joining some kind of hitman union.

Once Martin makes it back to Grosse Pointe, the film becomes less believable as Debi, now the local radio DJ, greets him with a shocked, passionate kiss and takes him back into her good graces almost immediately. But this is also when the film begins to work some of its not entirely negligible charm. We can credit Cusack for that, as it feels fitting to see the star of ‘80s high school flicks like Say Anything… dealing with some existential angst now that he has a few years under his belt, even if the sudden hand-wringing about the brutal profession he otherwise loves is mostly just so he can settle down and get the girl. Far too underused is Alan Arkin, who plays Martin’s begrudging therapist (he only treats the professional killer because he fears for his life). Arkin basically serves as a chance for Cusack to quasi-break the fourth wall and verbosely spill his guts, which he would go on to do much more memorably in 2000’s High Fidelity.

Written by a substitute high school teacher named Tom Jankiewicz shortly after he received an invitation to his own 10-year reunion, the film remains tonally light without ever crossing over to outright farce. This is to its detriment, as the comedy is too dry to earn many laughs, the action sequences are little more than stiff shoot-‘em-ups and the romantic angle feels forced and is carried only by the individual charisma of Cusack and Driver, respectively, not their mutual chemistry. The heavy exposition in the film’s first act, especially the obnoxious banter between Martin and Grocer about what a crazy profession they’re wrapped up in, feels especially amateur (not to mention that naming an elite assassin who’s questioning his profession “Blank” is more than a little on the nose). Indeed, despite the film’s moderate success at the time, it would be the only screenwriting credit for Jankiewicz, who died in 2013—notably during a Q&A session following a screening of the film in a university classroom.

Twenty years has done Grosse Point Blank no favors, and not just because the high-tech computer-generated dossiers Martin relies on look like they come from a game of Carmen Sandiego. Formulaic ‘90s comedies have a tendency to show their age, and not just with shoehorned-in aerial shots of a car cruising down the highway set to lively music—“Blister in the Sun” plays prominently here. Despite its offbeat premise, this one does little to break out of its self-satisfied mold. Grosse Pointe Blank may be one of the more time-capsule-like movies of 1997, a film about nostalgia for a prior era that we might have mildly enjoyed at the time but haven’t thought about since.

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