Grosse Pointe Blank

John Cusack was once described as having "the innocent Irish face of a very big altar boy." Picture that altar boy with a gun, and you get an idea of the twisted laughs to be had in Grosse Pointe Blank. Cusack is brutally funny as Martin Q. Blank, a professional assassin who has mixed feelings about going home to Grosse Pointe, Mich. — a swank suburb of Detroit — for his 10-year high school reunion. "What am I gonna say?" he asks his therapist, Dr. Oatman (a dryly hilarious Alan Arkin). " 'I killed the president of Paraguay — how have you been?' " The movie may be a bright burst of action and comedy with a cast that makes for rousing good company, but Martin is, to lift a line from Sweet Smell of Success, a cookie full of arsenic.

Cusack isn't afraid to play a monster. Does he make Martin likable? Sure — most monsters are. That's how they stay in business. As star, co-producer and co-writer of the film, Cusack is out for blood on the topic of how to succeed. Martin, with millions in the bank and a Pulp Fiction wardrobe, is one cool dude, but he's still shaky about Grosse Pointe. Martin hasn't been back since he jilted his girl, Debi (a tangy Minnie Driver), on prom night. His assistant, Marcella (a wickedly droll Joan Cusack, John's sister), pushes the reunion. She phones her boss while he's on the job — at a hotel window, aiming a rifle at his next victim — to provide details. "I'm working, Marcella," snaps Martin into his headset. She thinks it's a chance for her overburdened boss to get away. So does Oatman. "Don't kill anybody for a few days," he says. "See what it feels like." As it turns out, Grosse Pointe knows a winner when it sees one. Even Debi's stuffy dad (Mitchell Ryan) salutes Martin's career in crime: "It's a growth industry."

This subversive comedy takes aim at everything America holds dear: home, family, money, success — the things we're urged to kill for in an ethically clueless society. Grosse Pointe and the Army trained Martin to be an effective mercenary. It's a delicious irony that this grenade tossed at the heartland, with music by the likes of the Clash and the Specials to speed its way, is being released by a division of Walt Disney. Did Mickey execs take Martin's promise to stop killing after one last hit as a sign of redemption? If so, they're mistaken. Martin is a blithe psychopath who rationalizes immorality as part of the job. But that's not who he thinks he is. He pets his cat. He proposes to Debi. He grins at babies. He feels empty. What he doesn't feel is a tinge of remorse. Martin is a toxic product of his time.

Working from a story by Tom Jankiewicz, Cusack cooked up the script for Grosse Pointe Blank with Steve Pink and D.V. de Vincentis, high school pals from Evanston, Ill. All three studied acting at Evanston's Piven Theater Workshop, run by the parents of actor Jeremy Piven, who plays a real estate scam artist in the film. Cusack and Co. helped create Chicago's New Crime Productions, a theater group that has now branched into film and is devoted to kicking ass.

That New Crime credo is happily at work in Grosse Pointe Blank, which is less a model of focused screenwriting than a series of satirical riffs on what hypocrites we all are. Don't worry. The writing is smart, not smartass. It may seem odd that these mavericks brought on the 50-ish George Armitage, a Roger Corman protTgT, to direct. But Armitage's Miami Blues shows the wisdom of the choice. In that 1990 cult fave, Alec Baldwin plays a coldblooded killer with delusions of normalcy that he shares with a hooker (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who yearns to be a housewife.

Armitage clearly knows his way around the fantasies of sociopaths. And his action scenes, artfully lensed by cinematographer Jamie Anderson, vividly reveal character. The shootout in a convenience store — it used to be the site of Martin's home — is smashing, literally and figuratively, as a clerk wearing headphones remains oblivious to the havoc wreaked by Martin and a paid assailant. At the reunion dance, Martin takes on the same assailant in a battle that leaves blood on the walls, only this time, a borrowed pen — a symbol of civilization — is the lethal weapon. Armitage brings the war home, baby. He and Cusack show that crime takes many forms and that damage done with a polite veneer can be just as deadly.

Debi's father has been marked for a hit for making the wrong executive decision. The decision here to save dad pits Martin against his archrival, Grocer, played with twinkling menace by Dan Aykroyd, in a gunfight at dad's mansion. Grocer wants Martin to join his union for hit men. "Is it gonna be meetings?" asks Martin. "Of course," says Grocer, gun at the ready. "No meetings," retorts Martin as he fires away.

Aykroyd's comic skill typifies the talent at work even in smaller roles, such as the frazzled feds played by Hank Azaria and K. Todd Freeman. The movie, however, flies on Cusack's seductive malevolence. He is a marvel. At 31, this unfairly neglected actor has given at least four performances to put him in the front ranks of his profession. As nonconformist Lloyd Dobler in Cameron Crowe's Say Anything . . ., he showed style and substance. As third baseman Buck Weaver in John Sayles' Eight Men Out, an account of the 1919 Black Sox scandal, he radiated aggrieved innocence. As con man Roy Dillon, seduced and abandoned by his own mother (the great Anjelica Huston) in Stephen Frears' The Grifters, he salvaged a warped nobility. As compromised playwright David Shayne in Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway, he mastered the art of comic timing.

So why isn't Cusack a star? Maybe it's that his class acts are far outnumbered by tacky teen flicks (Sixteen Candles, One Crazy Summer), formula junk (True Colors, Money for Nothing) and ambitious flops (The Road to Wellville, City Hall). Or maybe it's that Cusack hasn't gotten it together to shape his own material. Until now. Grosse Pointe Blank reflects the audacity he favors and the ideas he trusts. For Cusack, it's a brave new beginning that does him proud.

From The Archives Issue 94: October 28, 1971