Martin Blank (John Cusack), a professional assassin who's experiencing something of a midlife crisis, is going to his high-school reunion. Picture the details, for a second, that accompany a return to one's hometown after disappearing post-graduation --- bumping into old friends, visiting a childhood house, and, of course, meeting eyes with the great love who got away -- and envision them punctuated by the fact that the once-promising individual retracing these roots now kills others people for a living. Really, that's all that needs to be known about Grosse Pointe Blank, George Armitage's madcap kitchen-sink comedy, which revolves around squeezing as much amusing situational contrivance out of the scenario as it can. And it squeezes out a lot; striking an infectious balance between inane and straight-faced humor that's not without glimmers of credible introspection, or without a few better-than-they-should-be action sequences, it's a clever, eccentric lampoon with spare clips of charisma tucked around every corner.
Sure, there's more to the story, but it all leads back to that central idea: after unexpected circumstances botch one of his jobs, Blank most travel to Detroit to compensate for the screw-up, which happens to bring him within the vicinity of his 10th High School Reunion. As expected of a hired-gun killer, he hasn't had much contact with those in his earlier life; in fact, his abrupt disappearance around graduation made it so he's barely had marginal communication with even his mother, and nobody else. Blank, already feeling the pressure from his job's strains and the pestering of a fellow assassin, Grocer (a hammy but enjoyable Dan Aykroyd), to "unionize" those in their profession, decides that it's not such a bad idea to return to his old stomping grounds -- and, maybe, to revisit his relationship with Debi, his only real attempt at a meaningful relationship. With the blessing of his reluctant therapist (Alan Arkin) and his secretarial handler (Joan Cusack), and a few deadly folks following him, he heads to Grosse Pointe.
Grosse Pointe Blank operates almost as if it's got a checklist of humorous rhetorical questions about the knocking-people-off business hiding in its sleeve, from whether there's an assassin's union and what a hitman would say to a therapist to what'd happen if a professional killer openly admitted his job in conversation. Tom Jankiewicz's script scratches 'em off with witty fleshed-out punchlines, driven by alert tongue-in-cheek dialogue and well-written, idiosyncratic stretches of exposition; scenes where Blank chats with his therapist play out as hilarious skirmishes of mental intimidation, while the subject of his employment crops up in zany, clever ways while he reintegrates with his high-school chums. The comedic timing here stays snappy and vibrant as it rides a wave of nostalgic '80s-driven music, while it consistently exploits the situational gag of a trained assassin doing what anyone might do when coming home for their high school reunion, fueled by the numbed confidence of somebody who's been murdering for years.
Beneath Grosse Pointe Blank's farcical side, though, lies a competent expressive underbelly that focuses on Martin Blank's issues with moral bankruptcy and his obscured identity, or lack thereof, giving weight to his cavalier attitude as a philosophically torn individual returning to the society he's been so detached from for years. Jankiewicz's work isn't an academic exercise or anything, but it does balance the zanier outlandish humor on the scales with a darker, introspective approach, not unlike a bizarre take on a John Hughes film mixed with a little Pulp Fiction and The Big Chill. Director Armitage understands the equilibrium he's out to achieve between black comedy and embellished absurdity, and pushes the envelope inside those boundaries; Blanks unloads waves of bullets, coldly kills people, and dodges the pursuit of government anti-terror spooks, then later allows his reawakened, almost-innocent emotion to emerge around the girl he's been hung up on during his ten-year disappearance. Some will find it a display of too-disparate extremes, but Jankiewicz's writing sells the illusion by tidily integrating them for an effervescent stranger-in-a-strange-land effect.
The untrusting and conflicted assassin in Martin Blank offers an interesting vessel for John Cusack's mannerisms to fill, segueing his smarmy, chilly demeanor from The Grifters and Money for Nothing into the off-kilter comedic presence that'd arise in the films following Grosse Pointe Blank. Here, he's smack-dab in the middle of both, operating mostly on his own charisma as a brooding black-cloaked assassin without an identity; the ticks, smirks, and gazes that accompany his sarcastic lines are populated with the baldfaced virtue he exhibits in his '80s teen comedies, working almost as a secondhand portrait of who Blank was before he picked up his heavy artillery. Armitage ushers in the film's heart through the chemistry generated between Martin and Debi, the bemused radio-jockey girl of his past, whom Minnie Driver plays with unflinching magnetism. Their sarcastic rapport makes one wonder why Blank made the choices he did in the first place, but the grin-inducing way they pick up where they left off -- and Martin's wavering impulses behind doing so -- gives the whole thing a robustly appealing flow.
Armitage juggles a lot here, but his skill in the director's chair allows the components to colorfully bleed together into an unforced, precise rush of stylized crowd-pleasing cinema. Subtle elements that punctuate its intentions could easily go unnoticed; from the rawness of the gunplay and other action sequences -- including a surprisingly good hand-to-hand brawl involving Cusack and Benny "The Jet' Urquidez, his martial arts instructor -- to how the camerawork emphasizes eye contact and body language between Martin and Debi, the filmmaking's versatility shapes its magnetic verve. That enjoyment level proves more than adequate enough to thrust Grosse Pointe Blank headfirst into a madcap conclusion full of flying bullets and unruly one-liners, one that overcomes any form of suspension of disbelief with cheeky, brisk-moving energy as it follows a hitman's comedic catharsis. Even at the end, Grosse Pointe Blank knows when to take itself seriously and when to let the satisfaction of its screwball premise pull the trigger.
Video and Audio:
Here's the deal: when comparing the home-video presentations of Grosse Pointe Blank, especially with the non-16x9 DVD as the most recent incarnation, it's obvious that even a meagerly-handled Blu-ray will be the direction to go; but it's, unfortunately, not the leap forward that one could hope for with a 15th Anniversary Edition. Presented in its original 1.85-framed aspect ratio in a 1080p AVC transfer, it sports the appearance of an old, bland, heavy mastering, evident by a clumsy focus on natural grain, middling black levels that occasionally gray out and crush details, and an overall digitally-processed appearance. On its own, that'd be tolerable-enough when evaluating its broad quality, and a few instances of fine detail in close-ups, fine details in backgrounds, and robust palette and skin-tone presentations -- especially during the reunion -- make it generally satisfying at a cursory glance. However, it's not without a few teeth-grinding flaws that stretch back to the archaic DVD, namely a few apparent instances of edge enhancement that crop up in a few sequences (one that really stands out, off the top of my head, is an outline around Cusack as he's standing at the Ultimart counter). There's improvement to be seen, sure, and it'll be occasionally gratifying for fans, but not as pronounced as one could expect and hampered by a few searing flaws.
The 5-channel DTS-HD Master Audio track pegs down a similar feeling to the visuals, even if it fares much better: it's certainly a step forward, but weighed down by a few of its own faults. Naturally, the most important factor to consider here is verbal clarity, which comes through clean, clear, a little bright and thin (and occasionally forced against the track's upper shelf) but overall pleasing enough to experience. The music largely sounds rather splendid, where the percussion and rhythm of classic '80s tunes flicker-'n-shine amid the overall design. In general, outside of the robust music, there's not a lot of forceful lower-frequency activity to mention; an explosion or two makes an attempt to dip into the lower frequency, while a few of Blank's gunshots and kicks make an effort at delivering something with a firmer punch. Many points in the overall track, however, sound a bit lightweight and thin to the ears, intermittently a bit tinny and lacking the weight that it should possess, even if it's sprawling out to the rear channels. There's plenty to appreciate here, though, and it services the core purposes of the track suitably. English SDH, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subs are available.
Perhaps Disney/Hollywood Pictures should've rethought the moniker "15th Anniversary Edition" for this Blu-ray, and then it wouldn't have been quite as disappointing to see that only a full-frame Theatrical Trailer (2:18, 4x3 SD) has been included in the special features. No interviews with Cusack or Driver, no behind-the-scenes features, nothing else here. Well, unless you count a scrumptious trailer for Who Framed Roger Rabbit, arriving on Blu-ray later in 2012. It's pretty unfortunate that a trailer for another Blu-ray release ends up being the most exciting supplemental inclusion.
Personally, I think nearly everything about Grosse Pointe Blank is terrific. Sure, you could get hung up on some of the story's improbabilities and its imbalance between the movie's dark and lighthearted tones, even though they play into its overall whimsy. But the comedic rhythm it nails down with a heap of fast-moving wit, a dose of '90s-era style, and the bits-'n-pieces of romantic inclinations and action sequences make the disbelief-suspension a component of its overarching charm. Cusack's charisma matches up with Martin Blank close to perfectly, a sarcastic hitman who's pondering the moral emptiness of his profession and identity, and the ways that he interacts with his teachers, friends, and loved ones in Grosse Pointe -- namely his missed opportunity at love, Debi -- mesh well with the violent undertones and occasional bursts of peril. In short, it's a blast to watch several times over, and it hasn't lost its vivacity since its release in '97.
The unfortunate truth here, however, is that this isn't much of a 15th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray from Disney; arriving with meager, occasionally unsatisfying audiovisual properties and an absence of special features, it's little more than a bland step-up from the DVD released many, many years ago. When you look at the care put into some releases of other '90s comedies, such as The Cable Guy, it's disappointing to see Grosse Pointe Blank not receive similar treatment. With that said: Based on the film's merits and the poor aptitude of the previous non-anamorphic, muddy, dust-riddled DVD release, this disc still receives a reserved Recommendation based on the middling improvement it sees in the overall film presentation ... but only at a reasonable price. With more refinement of the visual transfer and a few interviews or behind-the-scenes features, this would've shot much higher on my scale of recommendation. It's a shame.
Note: Images in this review are from Miramax's non-16x9 DVD, and do not represent the quality of the Blu-ray reviewed here.