by Thom Yee
Remember when you’d talk to your high school guidance counselor? He’d ask you what you would do if you had a million dollars, if you didn’t have to work. And invariably whatever you’d say was supposed to be your career. So, if you wanted to fix old cars you’re supposed to be an auto mechanic.
Hopefully the reason that sounds familiar to you is because you can pick out movie quotes pretty easily and not because it’s a reflection of your life. It’s a cliche. I never spoke to my high school guidance counselor; I’m not even sure if my high school had one. Frankly, I don’t think I’ve ever had a serious conversation about what I wanted to do with anyone. Careers are a tough thing to get a handle on. When somebody asks you what you do, do you just tell them where you work? What your title is? What you actually do? Or do you make something up that sounds a little more impressive? Are you happy with where you’ve ended up? Is it at all what you imagined? Does it even vaguely resemble what you would do if you had a million dollars?
Grosse Pointe Blank is a romantic comedy. Only for smart people. It’s a movie about what happens when you’ve convinced yourself that you can’t trust people, only to find out how different things can be when you do. Set in the small town of Grosse Pointe at his 10-year high school reunion, Martin Blank revisits old friends, former acquaintances, and, most importantly, lost loves. And when the inevitable question comes up, “What do you do, Martin?”, he doesn’t have a good answer.
If I had a million dollars (or any amount of money where I didn’t have to worry about finances), I’d probably spend most of my time paying people to do things they normally wouldn’t want to. Running through the streets naked, making out with homeless people…maybe reviewing cartoon movies from the ‘80s. But I know eventually that would get tired, and I’d probably fall back on the one thing that I and just about everybody else would do if we didn’t have to worry: kill people.
Or sit around, watching movies like Grosse Pointe Blank.
Can you believe it’s been 10 years already? Where are you now? Looking at old yearbook pictures evokes so many memories. Some good, some bad, but all interesting. Whenever news of you filters back, the school is excited and proud or your accomplishments. As a graduate of the class of _______, you are someone special. Remember, there’s nowhere you can go that you haven’t learned to go in time.
When Martin Blank (John Cusack) returns to his home town for his 10-year high school reunion, reuniting with the few people who once meant something to him and the love he could have had, he realizes how empty his life has become and how much he’s lost his taste for his work. Only he’s an assassin. And he might not be able to get out alive.
I grew up in a small town. It’s actually not that small, though, and it’s not even a town; it’s technically classified as a village or a commune or something, even though it has a ton of people in it and it takes like ten minutes to drive from one side of it to the other, but that may just be politics and not really a reflection of what it actually is. And what it is—well, even though we’re only a ten-minute drive from the city, it’s a giant bubble. Everyone who lives here knows it. Kids get married young and buy houses in town, parents are totally cool with all of it, and, like all those kids I grew up with, I went to the same school for thirteen years, kindergarten to grade twelve.
I still live in that town. More and more, it’s becoming a problem. In my first three years of university, just about my entire schedule was comprised of eight a.m. classes, which meant getting up at five to be out the door at six to catch the first of three buses. Now, I work in the west end of the city, which means a helluva long commute every day. And on top of that, every time I go to church (yes, I can cross the threshold of a church without bursting into flame, do try not to faint), I have to go to my old school, because for some reason the church and the school share one big building.
And that’s a problem because, every single week, I have to go to a high school reunion.
In Grosse Pointe Blank, Martin Blank (John Cusask) is a professional hit man, and he’s quite good at it. He’s even so committed to the “lone gunman” bit that he won’t join an assassins’ union (weirdest phrase I’ve ever typed, but now I have an awesome idea for a screenpl— aw, damn). He left home on the night of his high school prom in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, standing up his date, Debi (Minnie Driver), so he could join the army. But after ten years away and countless kills under his belt, Martin’s grown dissatisfied with his life and disillusioned with his career.
When he’s invited to his high school reunion, his secretary Marcella (Joan Cusack) bullies him into it, and he heads home. He reconnects with Debi, asks her to the reunion, and spends the rest of the film trying to be with her despite his underlying nature, his career, and the government operatives—not to mention several other assassins—chasing him to a shootout at the film’s climax. It’s all very exciting and eminently watchable, but though Thom finds the most meaning in the plot, I can’t shake the feeling that this is about something more than just a hit man who wants to quit his job.
Martin is a strong, engaging character right from the start. Even though he’s a man who kills people for money, his boyish charm and dry humour make it easy to connect to and sympathize with him. He’s stoic, but that, matched with his clever mind and funny demeanour, make him the sort of guy that you knew growing up, who you were never really close with but always liked. He has a personal code of ethics, a justification for doing what he does, but it’s getting more and more difficult for him to do his job.
At the start of the film, he guns down another assassin, and he seems coldly professional while he’s doing it. But during his next job, a really tricky thing involving poison dripping down from the ceiling, his sleeping victim wakes up, and Martin’s forced to run downstairs into the guy’s bedroom and fire several rounds into his chest. The guy is bewildered, saying, “Whatever I’m doing you don’t like… I’ll stop doing it.” And Martin says, “It’s not me,” before finishing him off.
Now, maybe he just meant “I’m not the guy who wants you dead.” But given that the “it’s not me” line is repeated throughout the film, to me that indicates a growing detachment from this identity he’s constructed for himself, not just from the job itself. And it’s especially poignant in several subtle ways laced throughout the first part of the film.
For one thing, Martin and Marcella have this giant office for themselves, just the two of them. It’s a front, of course, acting as a legitimate business to cover what they really do. But they could have done that in a smaller office, and the fact that it’s just them creates a literal space in which they are the only ones who know the truth and can handle it. And in that office, Marcella sends Martin on his way to the reunion with the file on his next job and a haunting line, ostensibly attached to the victim: “Don’t forget your identity.”
When Martin returns to Grosse Pointe, one of the first things he does is go home. But you can’t go home, as he discovers. In this case, it’s actually pretty literal, because developers have bulldozed his home and built a convenience store there instead. His mother is in care, as she has Alzheimer’s or something, and she no longer recognizes him. And that, too, is pretty damn poignant, because when even your own mother doesn’t recognize you, you know you’re not the same person anymore.
But Debi recognizes him, and they kiss almost immediately, because of course they do. Their chemistry is undeniable, and though both Martin and Debi are both a little bit off—I mean, they discuss their relationship over the radio while people call in to give their two cents’ worth, and later Martin gives her that airplane ride thing where he puts his feet on her stomach and she balances in the air or whatever—but they both feel like very genuine people, even if Debi’s identity is decidedly more rooted. She never left Grosse Pointe, and in a lot of ways she’s still the same person she was in high school. And maybe that’s why Martin is so drawn to her: she represents something he wants to get back. He wants to be the guy he was before he decided to start killing people.
As the movie wears on, people keep asking where Martin’s been for ten years and what he does now. For some reason, any time you go away for a while, people get really inquisitive and want to know what you’ve been up to. I think it’s a desire to connect, but it’s mostly a desire to tell that other person exactly what they’ve been up to. People like to talk about themselves, and even Martin has that desire. But he can’t connect, because whenever he’s completely up-front and tells someone exactly what he does for a living, that person laughs it off. As Debi said, “We joke about the things we don’t do.” It’s so far in the realm of the ridiculous that nobody can take it seriously, and that creates a very lonely reality for Martin: “They all have husbands and wives and children and houses and dogs, and, you know, they’ve all made themselves a part of something and they can talk about what they do. What am I gonna say?”
At the reunion, Martin is attacked by one of the assassins who’s been tailing him. He dispatches the guy in pretty short order, but then Debi finds him and realizes that he is, in fact, a professional killer. Understandably, this makes her freak out. Once Martin and his buddy Jeremy Piven (who’s really pretty cool about the whole “my former best friend whacks people for money” thing) dispose of the body, Martin finally gets around to the file of the person he’s supposed to kill. And that’s about the time that Marcella is torching the crap out of the office, symbolizing the fact that his old life, the life of a stone-cold professional killer, is about to go up in flames—because the job is Debi’s dad.
Martin tracks down Debi and her dad, and he goes on a murder spree while having the relationship talk with her. It’s a scene full of really snappy, clever dialogue, intercut with gunshots and people dying (and it’s a real shame, because her house was pretty nice before). And once everyone’s dead, including the government operatives, the other assassins, and the guy who was trying to recruit him to the union in the first place, a bloodstained Martin asks Debi to marry him. And apparently she says yes, because, as with all romantic comedies, they drive off into the sunset together. Roll credits.
But here’s the thing: like with all action movies, Martin only dealt with the guys with guns. He didn’t complete his last assignment, which means Debi’s dad is gonna testify against these guys in court. And before that, the environmental activist (I think) was supposed to die in a way that looked natural, but bullet wounds don’t exactly look natural. So Martin’s pissed off a few people now, and I guarantee you that those people, the big corporate honchos with the fat wads of cash at their disposal, are gonna send more guys. Martin’s screwed, and he’s dragged Debi into it, too.
I know it’s a movie. I know that’s exactly what happens in every single action movie ever. And maybe that’s why I don’t really mind so much. Besides, if Martin dies, at least he’ll be with the woman he loves. And at least he’ll be a person he could live with, however long the living might be.
I understand how Martin felt. It’s uncomfortable coming face to face with people you once knew, because you’re not the same anymore, and neither are they. And maybe that’s why it’s hard when it happens on such a regular basis for me: reunions are awful. Nobody likes them, and if they say they do, that’s only because they had a great time talking about themselves and how awesome they are. So it’s pretty sucky when you feel like you can’t talk to those people anymore, whether because you’re socially awkward, because you have nothing in common with them, or because you’re a professional hit man. But as long as you’re happy with yourself, or think you could be, maybe, someday, maybe then it might not be so bad.
Final Grade: B+
- So much classic rock! I love it.
- Nobody living in the Detroit area drives a locally made car. That’s weirdly ironic to me.
- Martin doesn’t smoke, which makes me like him even more.
- Jeremy Piven should not be allowed to drive.
- A Pulp Fiction cardboard stand-up in the convenience store! Is that really the kind of thing they can advertise in public places like that? I don’t even know.
- When Martin held that baby—which looked hella creepy, actually—at the reunion, I could practically hear his ovaries shrieking for sheer joy.
- What was with the chick in the wedding dress? Who wears a wedding dress to a high school reunion?
- Martin: “It’s either because I’m in love with your daughter or because I have a newfound respect for life.” Grocer, in the car behind: “He’s either in love with that guy’s daughter or he has a newfound respect for life.”
- This is the most surreal thing I’ve ever seen: two guys smuggling a body down a set of school stairs and shoving it into a furnace while “99 Luftballons” plays. That is all.