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.