This Is Me Breathing: GROSSE POINTE BLANK Twenty Years On

A hitman’s search for self and redemption in suburbia. Welcome back, Pointers!

“It’s not me,” is the refrain contract killer Martin Q. Blank repeats to distance himself from the moral dimension of his profession, to maintain the fiction that he is merely the empty vessel through which the murderous intents of his clientele are realised, even as the target begs for his life.

Yet this emptiness he has fostered gnaws at him from within, leaving him uneasy, dispassionate, and unable to sustain a mood. Plagued by recurring dreams of loss and pain revolving around the girl he stood up on prom night, he imagines himself as the battery bunny: without brain or blood or anima, banging endlessly on meaningless cymbals.

At odds with both his peers and his therapist, pursued by a client whose beloved dog became collateral damage and tasked by another to make amends for a botched hit, the strands of Martin’s inner, past, personal and professional lives collide and intertwine when he receives an invitation to his high school reunion in 1997’s Grosse Pointe Blank.

Just as graduation rituals mark one threshold of adulthood, revisiting high school at a decade’s remove marks another, a chance to take stock, compare aspirations with outcomes, maybe settle some scores, and it was the arrival of an invitation to his own ten-year reunion that led the late* writer Tom Jankiewicz to consider what it was to reach that milestone: “You feel in competition with your classmates, you feel you have to justify your life. So, I thought there would be a lot of comedic and dramatic possibilities if the guy just happened to kill people for a living." Ultimately Jankiewicz didn’t attend his reunion, deciding “to have Martin go for me instead.”

Michigan native Jankiewicz set his story in the city of Grosse Pointe, a wealthy enclave built upon its history as a commuter suburb for the industrial might of the Detroit auto industry, later becoming a white flight landing zone. Beat poet Jack Kerouac said after his brief residency in the city, “there was no tragedy in Grosse Pointe.” Grosse Pointe Blank would seek to fix that.

Jankiewicz’ screenplay came to the attention of New Crime Productions, the Chicago theatre company formed by John Cusack, Steve Pink and D.V. DeVincentis which was expanding into Hollywood and seeking film projects for Cusack to both star in and produce as he transitioned from the teen romantic leads of his early career into more adult roles. New Crime took an option on Grosse Pointe Blank and set about retooling the screenplay to suit the company’s commedia dell'arte sensibilities and sharply political bent, which critic Anthony Adler said "gave me back my faith in theater as a political discourse."

Cusack said in 1991 of the company’s ethos, "I don't believe in denying an audience entertainment. We present more of a spectacle. We want theater to be fun and passionate.” He went on to talk about the stage adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas he was directing with Pink, categorising Thompson with such political writers as George Orwell and Noam Chomsky. "They're interested in getting hold of the truth. They ask: What is capitalism? Democracy? They shake us from apathy. Too many people today don't give a fuck, you know. Some friends of mine have gone corporate. They play it safe. But deep inside they want a purpose, they want the truth. That's what's so great about Thompson; he takes us on a surrealistic trip to Las Vegas, the bone marrow of the American Dream turned nightmare. Yet he shows you the reality – what the power structure really is.”

This same ethos is evident in the finished Grosse Point Blank script, layered with satire as dark as Martin Blank’s suit, a distinctly left-wing political viewpoint of the military industrial complex, and thematic depth which maybe isn’t initially apparent because the film is so entertaining, functioning as an unusually male-oriented romantic comedy as well as a neo-noir thriller, its rounded, engaging performances and the unique voices in the poetry of its dialogue emerging from a script honed by writers who’d grown up together. Minnie Driver said of Cusack, Pink and Vincentis, “They know each other so well, and have a very tight friendship. It all works in this sort of strange symbiotic way between the lot of them. When one leaves off, another begins.”

Cusack brought the finished script to producing team Susan Arnold and Donna Roth, who were on the lookout for offbeat original scripts and soon got the movie set up with Caravan Pictures and Hollywood Pictures, two of Disney’s arm’s-length production houses, and a $7m budget.

George Armitage, graduate of Roger Corman’s New World Pictures and writer/director of 1972’s blaxploitation Get Carter remake Hit Man along with 1990’s neo-noir black comedy Miami Blues, was the first and only choice of director, his first task being a rewrite to get the script’s 132 pages down to 102, although the cast would later set about sneaking the excised material back into improvisation sessions. As Armitage tells it, he chose not to take a writing credit in order that the other writers’ share not be diluted in WGA arbitration.

With Cusack taking the lead as Martin Q. Blank and co-producing with Steve Pink, who also took the role of bumbling paranoid rent-a-cop Terry Rostad, the rest of the cast was soon fleshed out: the Paul Spericki best friend part went to New Crime Productions player Jeremy Piven, high school friend of Cusack and son of the founders of the Piven Theatre Workshop in Evanston, Illinois at which Cusack had studied along with his siblings Ann, Bill and Joan, all of whom slotted into the film, Joan taking the key role of Marcella, Martin’s personal assistant.

The Chicago connection extended as the part of senescent Mary Blank went to Barbara Harris, who had worked with the Pivens in the Compass Theatre before joining its successor troupe The Second City where she had worked with Alan Arkin, who was cast as Martin Blank’s beleaguered psychiatrist, Dr Oatman. Fellow Second City alumni Dan Aykroyd was drawn to the project by the opportunity to play opposite Cusack under Armitage’s direction, taking the villain role of Grocer, fellow hitman and union organiser.

The final major part went to outsider Minnie Driver as Martin’s long-lost love Debi Newberry, swapping her native London accent for a wholly convincing middle class Michiganian. Driver had expressed her admiration for Cusack and Arkin on the US press tour for Circle Of Friends, little suspecting she would be starring in a film with them a year later, and found herself welcomed into the tight-knit New Crime troupe, saying “They sort of let me in magnanimously, and it's quite nice to be part of all of that."

The harmony between the players of this ensemble made for a dynamic, creative and highly productive shoot. “I shot three movies simultaneously,” said Armitage. “We shot the script as written, we shot a mildly understated version, and we shot a completely over-the-top version, which usually was what was used… the insanity of it was trying to keep things working with three different registers to choose from.”

That the cast was effectively engaged in their own reunion only helped ground performances in which the actors continually surprised both their director and each other: Debi kissing Martin when he first enters her DJ booth was something Driver brought to the scene on the day, Cusack’s reaction entirely natural as she makes real the “two young lovers with frightening natural chemistry”.

The budget wouldn’t run to an extensive location shoot in Michigan, so the Los Angeles-adjacent towns of Monrovia, Duarte and Pasadena filled in for Grosse Pointe, neatly sidestepping the real Grosse Pointe High’s reluctance to be associated with a movie about a contract killer in an ironic counterpoint to its running gag of nobody actually believing Martin when he tells them what he does for a living. Rumours still circulated, however, that Jankiewicz had based Martin Blank on a student who’d genuinely turned to a life of professional murder.

Joe Strummer of The Clash was tapped to score the movie, his former band’s work also featuring on its eclectic but precisely-deployed soundtrack, every needle-drop working hand-in-glove with the story and film-making, best demonstrated in the use of Guns N’ Roses’ raucous rendition of Paul McCartney And Wings’ "Live And Let Die" as Martin pulls up outside his childhood home only to find a convenience store in its place, the music forming one of the movie’s many neat audio and visual transitions as he crosses the threshold and Slash’s guitar fades into muted chintzy muzak.

Calling out not only the repackaging of popular culture as fodder for commercialised stadium rock, but also its subsequent further repackaging as disposable background noise for consumerism, it’s a moment in which the movie’s politics are laid out alongside the cultural homages which extend beyond Armitage’s use of noir’s deep shadow and Dutch angles: beside the many Bond references in its first act, the movie’s title nods in the direction of John Boorman’s 1967 cult neo-noir Point Blank, while Grocer works in references to Ghostbusters, Stephen King and the Book of Revelations.

The Ultimart store is also the setting for a centrepiece shootout modeled after the films of John Woo, Cusack ducking and dual-wielding around the aisles in his black suit and shades, bullets and sodas mingling as they spray through the air. Not just a piece of ultraviolent absurdist cinema, this key scene has the movie’s themes at heart as it depicts the casual violence of Martin’s world following him to Grosse Pointe and destroying what’s left of his childhood there, the present erasing his past and catching up with his future.

Symbolically, there’s a rack of Duracells behind him as the microwave counts down to END and everything explodes. “It’s not me,” Martin tells the now jobless clerk as they observe the destruction, the payphone still standing amid the flames prompting his call to his sole remaining connection to Grosse Pointe: Debi Newberry.

There’s an otherness about Minnie Driver that illuminates Debi’s dissimilarity to the rest of the class of ’86 with their more pedestrian aspirations, the way she’s stuck in her small hometown playing '80s records from vinyl tying into the film’s concepts of arrested development, fate and destiny. As she speaks of her own abortive attempts to deal with the trauma of Martin’s abandonment there’s never any doubt she’s still madly in love with him, but she isn’t some kind of manic pixie dream girl: wiser and more cautious, she retains all the power as she negotiates the steps of their reconnection even as she revels in the childish glee the lovers have reawoken in one another. Playing old games in her childhood bedroom their individual pains fade into the background as the bedrock of their relationship is rediscovered and rekindled.

This regression into youth continues into the reunion itself, where nobody is surprised to see Debi and Martin still together even as petty high school jealousies, crushes and conflicts play out, their power only magnified by the passing years. Amongst the retelling of inconsequential anecdotes from old acquaintances the couple run interference to escape, Martin is confronted by the fragility of existence, receiving a swift spiritual kick to the head that plays out entirely on Cusack’s face while he stares into the eyes of baby Robbie, and as he acquires a newfound respect for life Martin is reborn.

“Sorry if I fucked up your life,” he tells Debi, and it’s this acceptance of responsibility not just for his life but for hers which finally overcomes her reservations. “It’s not over yet,” she tells him as they head first to the dancefloor and then the health station to consummate their reunion.

But it really isn’t over yet: first Martin has a run-in with school bully Bob Destepello, a man still trapped by his own juvenile toxic masculinity in a spiral of drugs and booze, senseless violence his first resort. Martin talks him down in a monologue full of philosophical double meanings as Debi watches on unseen, telling Bob that whoever he wants to hit, “It’s not me,” before they hug it out.

Martin’s next run-in ends less amicably, with a pen stuck in the throat of indie hitman Felix LaPoubelle (played by Cusack’s own kickboxing coach Benny Urquidez) after a drag-out fight between the lockers. Debi is confronted by the other side of Martin’s personality, the brutality she’d been brushing off as another of his jokes, when she finds him kneeling over the blood-drenched corpse, and runs off sobbing when he tells her, “It’s not me.”

Reaching his lowest ebb, Martin embraces the only life he knows, finally turning his attention to the docket of the job he was supposed to be doing while in Grosse Pointe, the man he was supposed to kill. Which, in a stroke of dumb fucking luck, turns out to be Debi’s father Bart. Here Grosse Pointe Blank brings its strands together, contrasting Grocer’s putative union of assassins with the machinations of the auto industry against Bart, asking if there’s really that much difference between them.

Bart is incredulous that he has been targeted for assassination by his employers before he can testify about a leaky sunroof which might provoke a costly recall, the corporate greed overriding any concerns for customer satisfaction or product quality in a symptom of the decline of American manufacturing might in a globalised world, an outmoding of the American dream in the face of the rise of the service economy as the baby boomers sold out. Paul’s BMW was sold to him by Bob in a reflection of Detroit’s decline, American automobiles such as Martin’s rented black Lincoln Town Car and the NSA agents’ woodie station wagon no longer aspirational status symbols.

“It’s not me,” Martin tells Bart before securing redemption in a gun battle waged throughout the Newberry house, taking out Grocer, his goons and the NSA while finally explaining just what happened way back on prom night, Grosse Pointe Blank’s juxtaposition of violence and romance coming to a cathartic peak in blood-soaked Martin’s proposal of marriage to Debi. Life’s full of second chances, and Debi decides to take this one, to get away, to satisfy her curiosity and go on this adventure, to forgive and just accept. Enemies and memories vanquished, the reunion weekend over, Debi and Martin drive off into the sunset and get the hell out of town.

A critical and commercial success, Grosse Pointe Blank secured its reputation as a quirky, endlessly quotable cult movie, notable as much for its clever jokes as its reflexive use of romantic comedy tropes and the chemistry between its leads. It’s not hard to see parallels with the much harder-edged John Wick in the hitman settling down in the name of love, the similarity borne by the Continental Hotel operation to Grocer’s guild of assassins and the depiction of a murky underworld operating entirely unconstrained just out of view, of the things that just are not done in a civilized society. Yet civilized society depends upon dirty deeds being done, only maintaining the fiction that they can be ignored as long as they’re done out of sight, and in breaking that abstraction with black comedy Grosse Pointe Blank lifts the curtain on the way the people who do those deeds, who execute policy, who perpetuate violence, are the people we grew up with, went to school with, pass on the street every day and fall in love with, and can be redeemed.

The same violent urge Martin Q. Blank fell prey to is present in us all, but Grosse Pointe Blank argues it can be resisted and turned to more positive ends if, even as we stand before the mirror with weapon in hand, we take a deep breath and realise: this is me breathing.

* In a tragic postscript, Martin Q. Blank attended another milestone when Tom Jankiewicz died in the midst of a celebration of his best-known work in January 2013 after he collapsed during a Q&A session following a screening of Grosse Pointe Blank at California State University as part of a "Psychology and the Movies" class. This article is dedicated to his memory