A killer

Grosse Pointe Blank aims high and hits its target

Don't let the glut of movies about hit men stop you from seeing Grosse Pointe Blank. It's not quite like any other movie--let alone one about a hit man. That may be because it's a hit-man movie crossed with a high-school-reunion comedy, and the two genres mesh surprisingly well: It's not a great leap to imagine who in your high school might have turned into one of those trigger-fingered "self-employed" types.

Martin Q. Blank (John Cusack) portrays the hit man as businessman. He keeps regular office hours, has a secretary (Joan Cusack), and goes where the work takes him--he once assassinated the president of Paraguay with a fork. We watch Martin zap a few targets in the early sections of the film. Then, to make amends for a botched job, he retreats to his fabulously wealthy hometown of Grosse Pointe, Michigan, for double duty: He's there to hit a federal witness and attend his 10-year high school reunion.

He's also there to hook up with his high school flame, Debi (the radiant Minnie Driver), about whom he has been obsessing ever since he stood her up for the senior prom and then disappeared for a decade. Actually, he stood up all of Grosse Pointe: A shady high school demi-legend, Martin was poised for big things. Now he's back--a superannuated BMOC.

Cusack, who co-wrote the film with Tom Jankiewicz, D.V. DeVincentis, and Steve Pink, is very good with Blank's blankness. (DeVincentis and Pink, with actors Jeremy Piven and Greg Sporleder, studied acting alongside Cusack in Chicago after college and are cofounders with Cusack of the experimental Chicago-based theater company New Crimes.) Cusack's otherwise deliberately flat line readings have surprising little blips of propulsion, as if he were about to break into a stammer or a scat song. He can do the furtive thing better than just about anybody; he brings out the paranoiac comedy in the hit man's nowhere-man swagger. When Martin walks down the street in Grosse Pointe, he's attuned to every flicker of disquiet around him; he can spot a tail out of the corner of his eye at a hundred paces. Martin is like a walking radar station--he's always picking up vibes of interference.

Yet Debi still rankles him in a sweet way. It's easy to see why--she's a knockout and turns out to be even more of a zigzag than he. They pick up the torch where he last dropped it. Regressing to a love-puppy adolescence, they walk in to the reunion together and are once again the cutest couple.

Grosse Pointe Blank, which was directed by George Armitage, plays out at its funniest like a comic fantasy of what it would be like to go back to high school and be tougher and scarier than anybody else. Except that Martin doesn't flaunt his toughness; he's like some sensei who doesn't have to prove anything and just wants to have an OK time. He offhandedly tells some of his classmates he's a hit man, but it's only because he's too deadpan to think up anything else--and no one really believes him anyway.

The filmmakers resist the temptation to turn Martin into a case history. He's a hit man because, as Debi's father points out, it's a "growth industry." And he wants out of the industry only because he's well off and tired of the racket. He resists an invitation from a rival hit man known as Grocer (Dan Aykroyd) to form a hit-man's union, complete with dues and benefits. If Martin is troubled, it's not because of his "job." It's because of Debi.

She is formidable in his eyes because she can rattle him the way no counter-assassin can. In Grosse Pointe, Martin plays cat-and-mouse with a Basque hit man, but it's no big deal for him. Debi is a big deal. He even prepped for their reunion: Before leaving for Grosse Pointe, he checked in with his psychiatrist, Dr. Oatman (Alan Arkin), for some guidance. Oatman is terrified of his patient--he advises Martin to go to the reunion and "don't kill anybody for a few days." (The notion of a hit man with his psychiatrist is a comic inspiration worthy of Woody Allen at his wiggiest.)

Grosse Pointe is a great backdrop to the story: Martin obviously isn't some deprived kid. What angers him on returning home after 10 years is that the family home, which must have been palatial, has been razed and replaced by a mini-mart. It's not the razing that appears to rile Martin; it's the mini-mart. The tackiness offends his sense of privilege. Having access to the finer things as a boy has given Martin a feeling of entitlement. He feels he's entitled to Debi, but he's too wary to force things and scare her off.

She hangs him up for a while even though she's starstruck. When he first reunites with her while she's doing her radio talk show, she brings him into the show's call-in portion and allows the listeners to grill him about his prom-night disappearing act. He lets himself be put through the wringer for her--it's his penance. It's also fair play, and Martin is nothing if not fair. What bothers him about his work is that his victims keep confusing him with his job. "Why does everybody think it's personal?" he asks after one particularly messy job. He wants to be thought of as a professional killer and a good guy.

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