Grosse Pointe Blank
directed by George Armitage
(Buena Vista, 1997)

Martin Q. Blank disappeared from his hometown of Grosse Pointe, Mich., on the night of his senior prom, joined the Army, became an assassin and eventually opened his own business. Now he wants to go home for his 10-year high school reunion. The problem: how to explain to everyone what he's been doing for the last decade, especially the prom date he left waiting.

Grosse Pointe Blank is a risky piece of work, if only because it's hard to create a professional hit man people can identify with. To succeed, you'd have to have an excellent story, memorable dialogue, pinpoint editing and on-the-mark performances from a solid cast.

Fortunately for director George Armitage, he gets it all.

Armitage hits the bulls-eye early, with an opening sequence that shows Blank (John Cusack) hard at work on a contract. The consummate professional, Blank lines up a cyclist in his sight while he chitchats with his secretary back at the home office on his phone headset.

A second hit doesn't come off so well, however, and Blank ends up obligated to take out a party in Detroit, just a stone's throw from his Grosse Pointe reunion.

That would make everything just swell, if he weren't in trouble with a professional rival named Grocer (Dan Aykroyd), who's upset because Blank won't join his hit man's union. So Blank arrives in Gross Pointe with 10 years' worth of baggage and at least three killers on his tail. This is a comedy, of course, so we know that Blank's going to unload the baggage and the killers. The only question is how. And the answer is, hysterically.

The fun begins when he arrives at his ancestral homeland, only to discover his parents' house has been replaced by a convenience store. His reaction: "You can't go home any more," he tells his therapist (Alan Arkin), "but you can shop there."

Then his long-lost prom date (Minnie Driver), now Gross Pointe's top radio DJ, ups the ante by putting him on the air and inviting listeners to call in an comment on his stutter-step attempts to get back into his old flame's good graces.

And there's the inevitable fun of reunion night as Blank takes on all the forces of evil, not the least of which is a drunken classmate who just wants somebody to "do some blow" with him. Compared to Blank, Romy and Michelle had it easy.

Screwball comedy works best when the pace is so fast the viewer has no time to sort out what's going on, and Armitage does his best to stay up to speed. There's plenty of quick cutting from scene to scene, and enough characters to fill two Russian novels.

Of these, Grocer fares best, if only because Aykroyd has mastered the art of delivering dialogue faster than anyone could ever respond to it. Whether he's explaining how his hit man union could work or meeting Blank for a brown bag breakfast -- the brown bag contains a gun, of course -- Aykroyd is nonstop nonsensical, and clearly enjoying every minute of it.

Any way you look at it, Grosse Pointe Blank is a two-hour tightrope walk that requires a willing suspension of morality as well as belief.

In the end, you'll have to ask yourself if you should really be laughing at the antics of a professional killer. Along the way, though, you'll be laughing too hard to even think about it.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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