Mind your backs Fear is the key

Grosse Pointe Blank George Armitage (15)
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The Independent Culture
When a therapist takes out a set of worry beads during a session and starts playing with them, it's normally a bad sign, a sign of derangement. For Dr Oatman (Alan Arkin), it's an indication of healthy adjustment. He's emotionally involved with his client, Martin Blank (John Cusack), and struggling to disengage. The emotion of his involvement is fear, since after four perfectly standard sessions Martin has revealed what he does for a living - he is a contract killer. Now he is saying things like: "I don't want to be withholding. I'm very serious about the process. I know where you live."

The anxious shrink is only a cameo role, but he is one of the high points of Grosse Pointe Blank (which Cusack co-produced and co-wrote), partly because Arkin is a glorious actor and partly because the situation is a rich one - professional seeker of secrets unearthing something he can't handle. Dr Oatman can't manage to break his relationship with Martin Blank, so he advises him to attend his high school's 10th reunion, which will at least get him out of town for the weekend.

Martin is the Blank in Grosse Pointe Blank and Grosse Pointe is a wealthy suburb of Detroit where no one seriously expects you to drive an American car. There is plenty of competent satire in the film: one of Martin's schoolmates is now an Alarm Response Patrolman, cruising the streets of the rich, authorised to use deadly force on disturbers of the peace if he judges it necessary (after a two-week course).

Another is an estate agent, who talks more like a therapist than the therapist does, who refers to clients of his as "newly-weds with a decision-making disorder". He undertakes to "re-enforce their clarity". American life is all brutality and counselling.

In its teasing domestication of a hit-man's job, Grosse Pointe Blank is in a line of descent from John Huston's Prizzi's Honor, where Jack Nicholson and Kathleen Turner played professional killers who fall in love. The trademark scene of Grosse Pointe Blank is one where Martin talks about something more mundane, or more important, while he goes expertly about his business. The first scene of the film has this structure and so does the last, on a greatly inflated scale, with Martin firing guns in all directions while continuing to shout out between fusillades his renewed romantic intentions to the woman he stood up on Prom Night a decade before.

Cusack has a strong amoral presence, best exploited to date in The Grifters, but the arrival of the love interest makes it clear that black comedy is going to lose out to a tale of redemption. Debi is a child woman, still more or less waiting for Martin, and her bedroom is a shrine to the 1980s. Every record we hear played on her radio show is an Eighties classic (Joe Strummer's work on the excellent soundtrack must have been a nostalgic experience in itself).

When she asks Martin to give her an aeroplane, she is not being materialistic - she means she wants him to lie on his back and balance her on his feet for a nostalgic adolescent thrill. Minnie Driver is charming in the role, but it is disappointing that none of the four male names attached to the screenplay could think of any higher function for the heroine than giving her man something to aspire to. She is a beacon of value. Prizzi's Honor wasn't a great film but there was a definite kick to its equal opportunity soundness about human nature.

From the beginnings of the film there have been hints that Martin is a closet moralist. When his secretary Marcella (played by another Cusack, the magical Joan), offers him an easy assignment with a Greenpeace target, he turns it down, saying flat out: "I have scruples." He recognises the category of the innocent bystander, dragging a supermarket manager to safety seconds before a bomb goes off. And he would never willingly hurt an animal, though for all his good intentions he has a certain amount of canine blood on his hands.

The director, George Armitage (Miami Blues), is a veteran who reached the director's chair by a tortuous route, starting in the 1960s in the 20th Century Fox mail room. In one scene, where Martin goes to visit his childhood home and finds that it has been knocked down to make way for a supermarket, Armitage uses Paul McCartney's Bond theme (Live and Let Die) on the soundtrack in an apocalyptic heavy-metal version performed by Guns N' Roses. Then, as Martin enters the premises and moves into a studiously rural environment, the tune continues in a soothing Muzak arrangement. This slightly reproduces the disconnection of Martin's feelings, but it may also be a nod to the same device in Altman's The Long Goodbye (Stephen Altman is the production designer on Grosse Pointe Blank).

The supermarket is the scene of an extended shoot-out later in the film between Martin and a fellow professional. The produce get riddled, the chill cabinets lose their glass, fountains of milk and juice deluge the surfaces, while the manager continues to play his video game, the synthetic mayhem drowning out the real. The closest approximations to human casualties of all this frenzied gun-play are the life-sized cut-outs of the cast of Pulp Fiction advertising its video release.

A homage to Quentin Tarantino is a hard thing to bring off, since many of his most characteristic moments are full of parody anyway, and a parody of a parody can just look like a pale imitation.

Grosse Pointe Blank has 20 good lines and 10 amusing situations, and both those figures are way above the norm. But there's still a feeling that the film wants to be hip and alternative without sacrificing a lot of formulaic elements - romance with a good woman, happy ending. At the reunion itself, the only person who seems to be genuinely unforcedly happy is a mother with a small baby. The baby the film uses is a particularly winning specimen but it's a rather clunkingly wholesome moment. This is one of the very few babies in film comedy not to excrete on a dandling adult. He doesn't even cry.

The film's best moments are bits of action between Martin and people from his past - his old teacher, his girlfriend's dad - where there is plenty of subtext but no clear emotional content. In these wary skirmishes between grown-ups full of little impulses of fondness and aggression, the film moves on to something funnier and more telling than its main plot. It's not just assassins who hate to leave their backs exposed, who want to put the gun down but still have it in handy reachn

On general release from tomorrow