A Big (Hit) Man on Campus in ‘Grosse’


It’s live ammunition that’s coming at you in “Grosse Pointe Blank.” A wild at heart, anarchic comedy that believes in living dangerously, it follows a hit man to his high school reunion and survives to tell the tale.

John Cusack, vividly watchable as always, does more than star as morose assassin Martin Q. Blank; he has organized a kind of Cusack conglomerate of relatives and friends to bring this darkly playful project to fruition.

It starts with sister Joan Cusack as Martin’s eccentric assistant Marcella, prone to calling him “sir,” as in, “Sir, I’m starting to worry about your safety.” Two other siblings, Ann Cusack and Bill Cusack, have small parts, and a friend from high school in Evanston, Ill., Jeremy Piven of TV’s “Ellen,” has a key co-starring role as, yes, an old high school friend.


Two other Evanston buddies, D.V. DeVincentis and Steve Pink, also have bit parts and joined with Cusack as co-writers of the script, along with original story writer Tom Jankiewicz, who managed a screen credit despite the lack of an obvious Evanston connection.

Nimbly making his presence felt amid all these homeboys is director George Armitage, who is developing one of the tastiest if slowest simmering of movie careers. Armitage turned out a quartet of uncomplicated exploitation films with names like “Private Duty Nurses” and “Vigilante Force” in the 1970s and then didn’t direct again until 1990’s “Miami Blues,” a roguish black comedy starring Alec Baldwin, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Fred Ward that was one of the year’s most distinctive films.

That same feeling for darkly ironic farce animates this film, and it’s a pleasure to see Armitage connecting with sympathetic material once again. “Grosse Pointe” has its share of Hollywood twists and doesn’t always make a whole lot of sense, but seeing a vehicle this outlandish is reward enough by itself.

Having been an assassin for a decade, Martin Blank is ripe for a crisis of confidence. His hits are not going as smoothly as they used to, and his archrival Grocer (Dan Aykroyd) is trying to form a kind of hit-person’s union that would include everyone from murderous dwarfs to those notorious “mad stabbers from the Philippines.”

Blank is worried enough to have gotten into therapy with the celebrated Dr. Oatman (played, in a possible nod to the classic “The In-Laws,” by Alan Arkin), author of “Kill Who? A Warrior’s Dilemma.” But Oatman is too terrified of his client to be much help. “Don’t kill someone for a few days,” he offers. “See what it feels like.”


Adding complications, the mercurial Marcella pressures Martin to attend his 10th reunion at tony Grosse Pointe High because she finds it “amusing that you came from somewhere.” The man himself is dubious about the kind of impression he’d make (“What can I say--that I killed the president of Paraguay with a fork?”) but when an assignment in nearby Detroit brings him to the area anyway, Martin decides to go.


Of course, he has another reason for attending. Having stood up his high school sweetheart Debi Newberry (the always effective Minnie Driver) on prom night and then disappeared without a trace, Martin has dreamed about his lost love every night for 10 years. Maybe reconnecting with Debi will help him figure out what his life is supposed to be all about.

Once he arrives in Grosse Point, however, Martin finds that few things about the town he left behind are as he expected. And the presence of rival hit men and cynical federal agents, all angling for an opportunity to end his life, help make this a weekend to remember.

In both incident and character, “Grosse Point Blank” manages to be consistently surprising, down to minor characters like a quirky rent-a-cop (played by co-screenwriter Pink) who feels overly protective about the houses he guards. And one of the film’s clever running jokes is how unimpressed everyone is when Martin breaks down and reveals what he does for a living. “Good for you,” says Debi’s father dryly. “It’s a growth industry.”

Clever enough to make jokes about Greco-Roman wrestling and make them funny, “Grosse Pointe Blank’s” greatest success is the way it maintains its comic attitude. Working with a smart script and actors who get the joke, director Armitage pulls off a number of wacky action set pieces. Even if you think you’ve heard actors say, “I love you, we can make this relationship work,” in every conceivable situation, this film has a few surprises in store.

* MPAA rating: R, for strong violence, language and some drug content. Times guidelines: The violence is done within a humorous context.


‘Grosse Pointe Blank’

John Cusack: Martin Q. Blank

Minnie Driver: Debi Newberry

Alan Arkin: Dr. Oatman

Dan Aykroyd: Grocer

Joan Cusack: Marcella

Hank Azaria: Lardner

K. Todd Freeman: McCullers

A Roger Birnbaum & Roth/Arnold production, in association with Caravan Pictures and New Crime Productions, released by Hollywood Pictures. Director George Armitage. Producers Susan Arnold, Donna Arkoff Roth, Roger Birnbaum. Executive producers Jonathan Glickman, Lata Ryan. Screenplay Tom Jankiewicz and D.V. DeVincentis & Steve Pink & John Cusack. Story Tom Jankiewicz. Cinematographer Jamie Anderson. Editor Brian Berdan. Music Joe Strummer. Production design Stephen Altman. Art director Scott Meehan. Set decorator Chris Spellman. Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes.


* In general release throughout Southern California.