'Grosse Pointe Blank' At 25: How A Knock-Off Became A Groundbreaker In The Assassin-In-Existential-Crisis Comedic Subgenre

You have to keep your eye out for it because it is an action sequence with a lot of quick cuts, but there’s one rather peculiar object in the background of the convenience store shoot-out in “Grosse Pointe Blank” (which hit theaters 25 years ago). The items shot up and blown apart by contract killer Martin Blank (John Cusack) and the man who’s trying to kill him (Benny Urquidez) are your typical 7-11 fare: potato chips, sodas, sports drinks, breakfast cereals. But off in the corner, there’s a large, cardboard standee advertisement for “Pulp Fiction,” featuring the visages of stars John TravoltaSamuel L. JacksonUma Thurman, and Bruce Willis. Willis’ head gets shot off in the crossfire.

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It’s not exactly a nonsensical prop – plenty of convenience stores rented out videotapes, and in an earlier scene, you can glimpse a window cling advertisement for “Smoke” (released, like “Pulp Fiction,” by Miramax; both it and “Blank” distributor Hollywood Pictures were Disney subsidiaries at the time). But it’s a big, knowing wink, an acknowledgment of the kind of film “Grosse Pointe Blank” was presumed to be, whether it attempted something different or not.

And this was not an unsafe assumption. The phenomenal critical and, even more importantly, commercial success of Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 indie smash ($212 million worldwide box office on an $8.5 million budget) prompted a score of interchangeable Tarantino knock-offs, filled with pop culture-savvy criminals, quirky casts of up-and-comers and former stars looking for a comeback, and loop-the-loop, non-chronological narratives. “Blank” has some of those earmarks: a nattily-dressed, fast-talking hit man protagonist; an ultra-cool soundtrack filled with unexpected needle drops (many of them part of a radio station’s “all-‘80s, all-vinyl weekend,” recalling the “K-BILLY Super Sounds of the ‘70s weekend” in “Reservoir Dogs”); a wryly funny, slightly amoral perspective on the life of the career criminal (when Blank tells people, truthfully, what he does for a living, he gets responses like “You get dental with that?” and “Do you have to do post-graduate work on that or can you jump right in?”). 

But those similarities are mostly surface. Director George Armitage (Miami Blues,”), along with Cusack and his co-writers Tom JankiewiczD.V. DeVincentis, and Steve Pink, is telling a more inherently comic story: though wildly successful and skilled, Martin Blank is suffering a career crisis (“concept execution stuff,” he explains) and is haunted by dreams of his high school girlfriend Debi Newberry (an irresistible Minnie Driver), whom he stood up on prom night. So at the insistence of his executive assistant (Joan Cusack, uproariously unhinged), he goes back to his hometown, the Detroit suburb of Grosse Pointe, for his ten-year high school reunion.

Grosse Point Blank

The notion of “hit man at his high school reunion” is, in some ways, an extension of the criminals-as-regular-guys angle that made those early Tarantino movies so enjoyable; there’s something comically incongruous about a bunch of bank robbers sipping coffee and decoding Madonna songs, or analyzing the naming conventions of international McDonald’s locations on the drive to “work.” If that element of criminal “shop talk” was par for the course by 1997, “Grosse Pointe” cranks it up with the running subplot of Dan Aykroyd’s blue-collar hit man attempting to unionize contract killers, to Martin’s dismay (“Loner, lone gunman, get it??”).

Yet much of what “Grosse Point Blank” does well has nothing to do with its contemporaries. Its greatest virtue is the complexity and sweetness of the romance at its center, as the hesitant Debi and the crumbling Martin attempt to reconnect, to see if something is still there between them – which there seems to be, thanks to the genuine chemistry and warmth between these actors. And then that sweetness curdles when Debi discovers Martin isn’t joking about how he makes his living; she sees what he does, accidentally stumbling upon him taking a guy out in self-defense, and is understandably shaken. Their emotional confrontation, in which he attempts to reckon with what he does and justify it to her, is played straight, and a little disturbing (“And eventually you… get to like it”). And the casual enjoyment of the cool criminal life, present in those early Tarantino films and much more so in its cynical imitators, is not present here; Martin Blank, despite our initial impressions, is neither cool, calm, nor collected. He is a mess, and his existential struggle is a fine reminder that the one thing few even bothered to try replicating from “Pulp Fiction” was the “trying to be the shepherd” beat. 

The way in which it comes closest to that emotional honesty is also the way it broke new ground. Early on, we discover that Martin is in therapy, attending weekly sessions with the nervous Dr. Oatman (Alan Arkin, perfection). And he is ready to do the work – “I don’t wanna be withholding! I’m very serious about this process!” – though we quickly discover that Dr. Oatman has been trying (unsuccessfully) to discontinue their weekly sessions after discovering Martin’s profession. 

Yet Martin is so dedicated to improving his mental health that he will not be dissuaded, pressing his doctor for advice (“Can we just pretend like we have a normal doctor-patient relationship?”) and peppering him with telephone calls and requests for pep talks during his trip home. Their dynamic – the doctor who is terrified of his criminal patient – is played both for laughs and for drama; when he calls Dr. Oatman for encouragement on the night of the reunion, Oatman gives it to him (“Repeat after me: I am at home with me. I am rooted in the me who is on this adventure”).

That psychiatric struggle, between a doctor’s fear of a patient’s criminal capacity and their desire to lead them to better mental health, would reappear, and often in crime-based popular culture to come. On January 10, 1999 – nearly two years after “Grosse Point Blank” hit theaters – “The Sopranos” debuted on HBO, using its brusque gangster’s weekly therapy visits as an inciting action and running narrative clothesline. Two months later, “Analyze This” arrived in theaters, a broadly comic exploration of the relationship between a Mafia don and his neurotic therapist. Since then, the idea of the criminal in general and hit man in particular grappling with morality, mortality, and their own emotional damage has become a running strain in pop culture, up to and including the current “Barry” – the moral conundrum rendered as black comedy, but taking the psychiatric/therapeutic process seriously enough to allow genuine growth for the flawed protagonist. And hey, it seems safe to assume, if they can get it together, why can’t we?