“I just got off the phone with a very unsatisfied customer,” says Martin Blank’s (everyone’s lovable All-American guy John Cusack) secretary Marcella (played by Cusack‘s hilarious sister Joan). This is refrain you will become familiar with while watching George Armitage‘s dark comedy Grosse Pointe Blank. From the opening credits, we can see one thing about our protagonist – he is inept at what he does. And what does he do, you ask? Well, he is a liquidator, hatchet man, iceman. An assassin. And when I say inept, I don’t mean he can’t pull off the work. Martin is able to kill his marks, but the devil is in the details and this is where he fails most.
You’re a handsome devil. What’s your name?
After killing the target (another assassin) in the opening credits, the man he was protecting and his bodyguards are riddled with bullets shortly thereafter by Grocer (Dan Aykroyd), another rival assassin and Blank’s nemesis. This is the first glaring example of why Blank is so bad at his job. And make no mistake, this incident opens the film for a reason. It takes less than the opening credits for us to see that he is a fuck up. But he remains a fuck up in demand.
In addition to this bungled hit, in the first ten minutes we learn of or see two more colossal mistakes by Martin – accidentally killing a dog while trying to kill its master and his inability to make a hit look like the target died in his sleep (supposed to poison the target, but ended up shooting him). The latter incident prompts the unsatisfied customer comment above from Marcella. Because of this botched hit, Blank is dispatched to make amends and take out a federal witness in his almost hometown of Detroit. He hails from Grosse Pointe, which is an affluent suburb of The D…and is there the same time as his 10-year high school reunion.
You can’t go home again…but I guess you can shop there.
Blank returns home to attend the reunion and take care of some work at the same time. His skittish psychiatrist, Dr. Oatman (Alan Arkin), who pleads with him not to kill anyone for a while to see what it feels like. Martin has a dilemma. This is conplicated further when Martin reaches out to and rekindles his long lost romance with local radio DJ Debi Newberry (Minnie Driver) whom he unceremoniously dumped her on Senior Prom Night to enlist in the army. With this revelation, we know Martin is flawed, exceedingly flawed, and it shows in every aspect of his life, but mostly in his work. After all, he is seeing a shrink and this was well before we ever saw Tony Soprano with his or those ridiculous Analyze This movies.
If you love something, set it free. If it comes back to you…well, it’s broken.
Since Blank has “snaked the Detroit job” from under him and has refused to join his new guild of assassins (“more pay, less work”), Grocer colludes with federal ATF agents (Hank Azaria and K. Todd Freeman) to take Blank out of the picture. He gives them details of the hit he is supposed to undertake. They are to wait him out until he he does the deed so they can catch him in the act, but he uncharacteristically waits against the urgings of his assistant Marcella. So they are hung out to dry…for the time being. That Grocer even wants to do business with Blank at all is a miracle. He repeatedly mentions the Boudreau-blunder (the dog Martin accidentally killed) throughout the film, constantly highlighting and joking about Blank’s ineptitude. Are his advances towards Martin genuine? They seem to be, which makes us believe all killers-for-hire are really suckers. “That’s what I’m talking about, kid, we could be working together again, for God’s sake! You know, making big money, killing important people!” This is another reason why this film is so successful – it takes familiar conventions of a type of film and really does spin them. Who would hire either of these clowns?
Grocer vs. Blank: I don’t see hollow point wound care on the menu…
As the nostalgia washes over Martin from being in his hometown, he gets soft. Or should I say softer. He lets his guard down, is more vulnerable than ever before (or so we can surmise). Is this a good thing? As far as business goes, no. On top of Grocer being in town as well as the ATF agents, another assassin, a Basque whacker from the Pyrenees, Felix LaPubelle (Benny Urquidez), has also been hired to take Blank out. After one explosive run-in at the Ultimart that was built where his childhood home used to be, their paths cross again at the reunion, almost immediately after Blank and Debi have re-consummated their relationship (in the nurses office to boot). One hell of a fight commences, it is only the pen that his friend Ken (the ever-awesome Carlos Jacott) gave him that saves his life after burying it in LaPubelle’s throat. So after being caught off guard, it is only the pen that saves him. Sloppy.
It’s not me!
That Debi and his buddy Paul (Jeremy Piven when he was awesome) find out that Martin has killed Felix is another strike against him. Even though he is able to dispose of the body, with Paul’s help of course, there are still witnesses…and they live to possibly tell the tale. You can’t do that in this particular line of work, right? That Blank throughout the film tells people that he’s a professional killer, and no one believes him is funny and an indication of where we as a society stand with regards to this notion that people kill other people for a living.
Here, check it (also one of my favorite parts of the movie):
So, at the end, the target of Martin’s hit (SPOILER) is Debi’s father (Mitch Ryan). So Martin has a choice – bury Mr. Newberry or give up the game. What do you think he does?
I was hired to kill you. But I’m not going to do it, either because I’m in love with your daughter or I have a newfound respect for life.
Ever since I saw Jean-Pierre Melville‘s Le Samouraï, I hold Jef Costello (Alain Delon) up to be the perfect archetype of a hitman. Blank clearly doesn’t fit the same mold. He has scruples, falls in love, undergoes existential crises – none of which you expect from a hitman who seem so immune to these realities we all face as humans. I love this movie and have since I saw it in the theater when it first came out. John Cusack is one of my all-time favorite actors (well, up to his work in High Fidelity) and he is very good in this film. Even though his character is just plain bad at his job, and we are told this over and over, I think that’s why this film works so well. I expect, like many probably do, a hitman to be a Jef Costello/cold-hearted killer and I’m pleasantly surprised when I get a Martin Blank who is a bundle of idiosyncrasies instead. While it all goes wrong for Blank in most cases, in the end it all goes right, for us as viewers and for him as a character. Is he the most inept film hitman of all-time? Maybe, maybe not. He certainly isn’t the most effective, but his story makes for a fun watch.
Here’s the trailer:
And as of now, the entire film is available here for free: