Our second guest in the Hotel is George Armitage’s 1997 none more black comedy comedy Grosse Pointe Blank.
John Cusack may occasionally slum it in by-the-numbers films (2012, Serendipity, America’s Sweethearts – discuss), but when he is really applying himself he is amongst the most accomplished actors working today. Endearing, personable, yet edgy enough to convincingly portray characters as diverse as Craig Schwartz, Roy Dillon and Robert Hansen, Cusack’s best work has perhaps tended to feature in the lesser-known, unheralded films on his CV, which is where we come in. More to the point, that is where Grosse Pointe Blank comes in.
Released in cinemas in 1997, Grosse Pointe Blank has Cusack’s fingerprints all over it. He starred in it, helped write it and co-produced it, which perhaps goes some way to explaining why his character is so endearingly sympathetic, despite being a contract killer. Although its US box office almost doubled its modest $15m budget, keeping it from qualifying as a flop, those sorts of figures were never going to propel it into blockbuster territory and despite its many, varied charms it remains a relatively unheralded masterpiece.
GPB opens on Martin Q. Blank (Cusack) attempting to assassinate a contract target but messing things up, struggling all the while with conflicted feelings, disenchantment and a touch of the blues. He decides to attend his high school reunion as a way of reconnecting with his past, combining the trip to Grosse Pointe, Michigan with a (possibly final) contract that comes his way as a means of making up to his employers the problems created by his recent errors. He runs into Minnie Driver’s Debi, the girl he stood up at the prom, has to try to avoid the Feds who are tracking him, has Dan Aykroyd’s competing assassin on his tail, as well as the silent but lethal Benny Urquidez, out to kill Blank for having inadvertently killed a beloved family pet during a hit.
His sense of ennui, Aykroyd’s character wanting to sign him up to an assassin’s Union and the nostalgia for the 1980’s (it’s the high school’s 10-year reunion, so the soundtrack is all very 1980’s) all provide all sorts of engagement and entertainment – laughs, emotional resonance, winning (and annoying) characters, unexpected plot twists – while the tone manages to nail exciting, moving, funny and a real sense of jeopardy without feeling schizophrenic, conflicted or inconsistent.
What was clearly a pet project for Cusack manages to avoid ever feeling like a vanity project. Although most of his family appear at some point or another (Joan is hugely impressive and endearing as his mildly loopy secretary), it doesn’t have any sort of smarmy self-satisfaction about it. Instead it succeeds in being witty, memorable, exciting and inventive in ways most contemporary action-comedy-thrillers can only imagine. A case in point – we know that Cusack’s Blank is cool and charming, but all of a sudden he is set upon Benny Urquidez and we are into a breath-taking kick-boxing fight (Urquidez was Cusack’s real-life trainer) with Cusack giving as good as he gets in a series of punches, kicks and take-downs. As alluded to earlier, there are real stakes, real risk and organic, ungimmicky plot revelations, as well as Cusack and real-life best buddy Jeremy Piven clearly having a loosely-scripted laugh together.
It is hard to know what to compare GPB to, so seemingly unique is its blend of genres and styles. Perhaps Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is its closest big screen relative, although it is a little less noir-inflected than Shane Black’s modern gem. Blank is, of course, an anti-hero, given that he kills people for a living. But we quickly forget this simple truth, so winning and appealing is Cusack’s performance. Like Con Air’s Vince Larkin, or High Fidelity’s Rob Gordon, he is someone we instantly like and would quite enjoy getting to know. But, alas, it’s only a movie.
Blessed with a seemingly unlimited re-watch factor (I’ve seen it at least half a dozen times and it feels as fresh as when I saw it on the big screen), a whole host of touches that you will likely miss first time around and a supporting cast to die for (Hank Azaria, Alan Arkin, Piven, Aykroyd, Mitch Ryan), by deliberately dipping its toe back into the past it has avoided ageing and remains timelessly thrilling and enjoyable. You can get it for less than a fiver right here, or perhaps on one of the multitude of streaming options out there these days. The trailer below serves as a really good appetizer for what you will hopefully agree is one of the great under-rated films of the past 20-odd years (although it is perhaps a little too plot-spoilery for my liking), so go ahead and check it out.