Exploring The Secret Influence The ’90s Classic ‘Grosse Pointe Blank’ Seems To Have On Modern Pop Culture

Buena Vista Pictures

I have a lot of favorite scenes from Grosse Pointe Blank, a 1997 black comedy about a hitman going through an existential crisis during his 10-year high school reunion. It’s my favorite movie that I never remember is my favorite movie. I’ve seen it at least a dozen times in the past 22 years, and I never tire of it. I watched it again last weekend, and I’ve spent the past few days quoting it: “10 years!” “Popcorn!” “You can never go home again, Oatman … but I guess you can shop there.”

But the scene that stood out most during my recent rewatch was a brief exchange that occurs about 2/3rds into the movie, the one where the killer, Martin Q. Blank (John Cusack,) chats with Mr. Newberry (Mitchell Ryan), the father of his high school girlfriend, Debi (Minnie Driver). A running joke in Grosse Pointe Blank is that Martin tells people flat-out what he does for a living, and everyone takes it as a sick, ironic quip. (This was the ’90s, after all.) When Martin confesses to Newberry, the old man nods approvingly. “Oh! Good for you, it’s a… growth industry.”

What inspired me to revisit Grosse Pointe Blank is my suspicion lately that the film itself — the tone, the sensibility, the themes, the central idea — has quietly become a growth industry of sorts in 2019. Back in 1997, Grosse Pointe Blank was a modest box office success viewed by detractors as a Tarantino retread, due to the mix of laughs and violence and Cusack’s Reservoir Dogs-style black-and-white suits. But now, Grosse Pointe Blank seems like it was ahead of its time. The concept of a professional killer who goes to a therapist (played hilariously by Alan Arkin) occurred two years before The Sopranos and Analyze This. More broadly, the ethical pitfalls of rationalizing away bad behavior as a consequence of professional responsibility became a bedrock of the antihero phenomenon that’s been central to prestige TV for the past two decades.

This year, I keep seeing traces of Grosse Pointe Blank in things I’m watching. For instance, in this week’s reigning box office champ, John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum, Keanu Reeves (who like Cusack started his career in ’80s teen films and will forever be closely associated with Generation X) returns as a professional killer with a penchant for Reservoir Dogs-style black-and-white suits.

In the original John Wick, Reeves could almost pass for a version of Martin Q. Blank many years removed from Grosse Pointe Blank. The last we see of Blank in that movie, he’s leaving town with Debi, presumably to start a new life in retirement from the criminal life. In John Wick, the retired killer has recently lost the woman who changed his life. His only companion is a dog, which he will also soon lose. (In Grosse Pointe Blank, Martin’s roommate is a cat.)

There are other parallels: At a crucial moment in Grosse Pointe Blank, we see Martin kill a man with a pen; in John Wick, the story is altered slightly to a pencil. Both Blank and Wick run afoul of a secret, shadowy society of criminals — Blank resists the overtures of the maniacal Mr. Grocer (Dan Aykroyd) to join his labor union of contract killers, while Wick spends Chapter 3 dodging goons sent at the behest of the similarly codified High Table. Ultimately, both men project a deep weariness that can only be described as extremely Gen X. They are highly skilled at what they do, but they only want to be left alone so they can just be. (I’m confident that John Wick would enjoy chilling out to the mix of 1980s alt-rock hits that Debi Newberry spins on her radio show in Grosse Pointe Blank.)

I also detect Grosse Pointe Blank in the DNA of HBO’s comic thriller Barry, which just wrapped an excellent second season on Sunday. Cusack has said that Grosse Pointe Blank was intended to be a metaphor for the Reagan/Bush years, a pinnacle of people acting in mercenary fashion in their jobs and cleaving that off from their “good and decent” private lives. Barry also explores that duality — in the pilot, Barry Berkman (Bill Hader) uses the same excuse for his work as Martin Q. Blank, which is that he only kills bad people. (“If I show up at your door, chances are you did something to bring me there,” is how Martin puts it.) At heart, both men still see themselves as worthy of redemption, because their jobs aren’t them.

Barry adds another layer of self-delusion by setting the story in Los Angeles and making Berkman an aspiring actor. In the pilot, he swiftly changes his name to Barry Block, an appropriate moniker for a man who is trying to hide from others — and himself — the truth about who he really is. (It’s also an interesting contrast with Martin Q. Blank, a character who gradually comes to terms with the fact that he’s not impassive, and truly does care about the morality of murdering people for a living.)

After a brilliant first season, which felt like a self-contained story about Barry’s ultimate failure to rehabilitate, the second season cannily focused on Barry’s burgeoning career as an actor. “Acting is truth,” says Barry’s acting coach, Gene Cousineau (played wonderfully by the preternaturally affable Henry Winkler). This bit of callow actor-speak acted as both a mission statement and sick joke for Barry season two. Cousineau encourages his class to draw on their real-life traumas for an upcoming showcase. But Barry and his girlfriend Sally Reed (Sarah Goldberg), in their own ways, curate their pain to make it more palatable for an audience. Their entire lives are essentially performances.

The weakest part of Grosse Pointe Blank, as noted at the time by critics like Roger Ebert, is the cheerily upbeat ending, which unwisely takes Blank’s desire to be with Debi and embrace a “normal” life at face value. In that regard, last Sunday’s season finale of Barry felt like a truer redux for this sort of “charming psychopath” character.

At one point, the episode appears to rest on a “happy” ending for Barry, who once again escapes the consequences of his actions. “I’m pretty sure people can change,” he says to Cousineau’s son, right after his dad is cleared of a murder that Barry committed. And then … Barry proceeds to commit the most violent sequence of the entire season, if not the series, though he doesn’t get the person he’s actually trying to kill, his estranged handler Fuches (a never-better Stephen Root), which makes the outburst oddly anticlimactic.

While Barry is only a mediocre actor in class, he does get pretty good at acting like a relatively normal person in his life — even though he’s definitely not normal and probably never will be. If the end of Grosse Pointe Blank feels like a cop-out for not confronting this central defect in the personality of a killer, the season finale of Barry appropriately felt like staring into an abyss.

The weirdest aspect of having Grosse Pointe Blank on the brain lately is how it’s made me think about my own attraction to stories about for-hire killers. After all, I’m also watching the second season of Killing Eve, which wraps up on Sunday.

Yet another comic thriller with some Grosse Pointe Blank overtones, Killing Eve is considerably less buzzy now than it was during its first season, which garnered Sandra Oh an Emmy and a Golden Globe and made the astounding Jodie Comer a star. At times, Killing Eve doesn’t quite know what to do with the combustible chemistry between Oh and Comer. (Unlike Barry, Killing Eve hasn’t always made a convincing case for needing to exist beyond its perfect first season.) Eve and Villanelle are adversaries … though they also work together … but they might also be in love … unless Eve goes back to her husband … though her husband is somehow less endearing than the international assassin.

At its best, Killing Eve has some of the sweetly zany romantic comedy aspects of Grosse Pointe Blank — if that film were told from Minnie Driver’s point of view. The current season has grappled with Eve’s dangerous attraction to Villanelle, and what it says about her own tenuous grasp of right and wrong.

Comer’s portrayal of Villanelle remains highly magnetic and irresistibly comic. She affects Cusack-in-1997 levels of charm. But Killing Eve also implicates the audience for being attracted to Villanelle — which doesn’t happen in Grosse Pointe Blank.

“People say forgive and forget. Yeah, I don’t know. I say forget about forgiving and just accept. And get the hell out of town,” Debi says as the credits roll. Maybe, Killing Eve suggests, she should have just gotten the hell away from Martin Q. Blank.