If you had to nominate one film as ' The Best 80s Movie The 80s Never Made', what would it be? I can't think of many contenders for the title (perhaps Michael Winterbottom's 24 Hour Party People, 2002) but for my money it's got to be Grosse Pointe Blank. Why? Because its themes of coming home, facing your demons, re-connecting with the love of your life and staying alive long enough to see it all come together are ageless, and here they're all wrapped up in the form of a wickedly dark comedy. The film explores the significance of making (and rediscovering) our roots, and at the same time allows us a unique insight into the day-to-day life of a hitman (prozac and protein it would seem).
Comedy is arguably the hardest genre to get right (which makes its frequent Academy snubs all the more annoying). To illustrate my point, take the horror genre. Horror mainly relies on direction and editing - the way a shot is composed and then revealed to an audience. Drag Me To Hell is a film that has frenetic, inventive camerawork and terrifying use of sound and sound editing - but name me one horror film that has Mamet quality writing, and is the high point of that film? You could argue that it's not the point, but consider the earlier work of Sam Raimi. Evil Dead II has hysterical writing, but what do you remember first? "Groovy!" or the flying eyeball? The same can be said for action movies - Wanted, one of the most enjoyable films of recent years, has plot holes you could drive a bus through, but remains an absolute blast. Drama needs a great script and actors but the direction and editing doesn't need to be anything special to enhance our enjoyment of the film - for example the back-catalogue of Mike Leigh. He writes some of the finest dialogue in the business and works with actors in a spectacular way but his direction and editing is simplistic, to allow those elements to shine. So, onto comedy...
Comedy needs a funny script, guided actors to bring it to life and editing that will allow the timing of the gags to be pitch-perfect. Grosse Pointe Blank is my textbook example of the theory. It's a movie that was great in pre-production, great in production, and great in post-production. The intelligence and wit of the script shines, John Cusack is the best he's ever been under the direction of George Armitage, and the editing is exemplary. For an indication of what i'm talking about, see the scene below:
It's a perfect scene. Martin Q. Blank (John Cusack) is at his 10 Year High School Reunion with Debbie, the woman of his dreams (literally) who he abandoned on prom night a decade ago. Martin is a man with no commitments - he packs light and travels fast, his only connection to the real world his shrink (Alan Arkin). Up until this moment he's been a conflicted character - his exterior is of a cocky, confident hitman trying to reconnect with a girl - but he's really trying to reconnect with a life he probably thought of as belonging to someone else. It's a tender, layered performance and it's at its best in this scene - where life, the thing he takes for a living, is placed in his hands, and we realise who he truly is. It's a perfectly scripted event, landing at just the right time to have an emotional impact, and Cusack plays it perfectly. The look of wonder and fear that plays on his face is captured in the most effective shot reverse shot i've ever seen. As the backing song slowly stars to crescendo, we recognise it as the Queen/David Bowie track "Under Pressure" (perfectly summing up Martin at this point in the movie) and it becomes overpowering. An understanding is made between a baby and the man who never grew up. The lyrics: "why don't you give love, give love one more chance" and "this is our last dance" reflect the entire point of the film. It's mise-en-scene personified. And you still want to know why it's a masterpiece? Okay...
There are few heroes more tragic than Martin Q. Blank. Throughout the movie he has questioned himself - his path in life and the decisions he made. It's a movie full of existential doubt, but it never, crucially, surpasses actual character. Cinema has a strange obsession with asking us to relate to hitmen (in the last decade The Whole Nine Yards, The Matador and You Kill Me) but none of them are rooted in the most important of issues - who you are, and where you came from. Up until the actual reunion Martin doesn't know these things. Gradually, by coming home, he reconnects with himself, but this scene shows just how sad and alone he is. Gun in hand, head held low, Grosse Pointe's lonely soul proclaims "this is me breathing". Killing is all he knows. It's more a part of him than anything else. Like I said, few heroes are more tragic than Martin Q. Blank.
Even ignoring Martin, the film is still a masterpiece. It's a film that takes place in the details. For example...
'Live and Let Die' (the Guns N' Roses version) is playing on the car radio. Martin exits his car and the song once again crescendos over his puzzled expression, after seeing the Ultimart where his home once stood. And after entering the store, mid guitar, the song changes to the sort of recycled, synthetic elevator music that seems to be everywhere we go. Martin storms up to the kid behind the front desk demanding: "What are you doing here?" to which the kid simply replies "I'm doing a double shift, what does it look like?" It's probably the first glimpse of real life Martin has seen for a long time, and it's planted where he grew up.
Everything in this scene is perfect - the script, the direction, the editing. And it just carries on throughout the whole film. It's witty, perfectly played, nostalgic, honest, romantic and very violent. Most action movies, let alone comedies, are afraid to show people actually getting hurt, but in Grosse Pointe Blank the bruises are on the outside as much as the inside, as this third and final clip demonstrates:
It's probably one of the most brutal fight scenes ever filmed (of course cinemas best fight scene belongs to John Carpenter's They Live). Every kick is heard and felt. When a punch is landed we see both men bruise and bleed and by the time the fight is over Martin is left knelt on the floor, bloody pen in hand. "It's not me" he says. It's just another scene where the tragic hero may be in an outside conflict, but the real fight is inside.
If you haven't already, stop off at Grosse Pointe as soon as possible. It's something really special and if you've already seen it, hopefully this article has spurred you on to watch it again. Either way, it's the best 80s movie the 80s never made. And if you take a deep breath you'll realise...it's also one of the best films ever made.