Grosse Pointe Blank 1997 ****

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Was there ever such a carefree time as 1997? No terrorism, no political unrest, even the hit-men were nice guys as evidenced by George Armitage’s fondly remembered rom-com Grosse Pointe Blank. Sure, there’s a high body count, and yes, the John Cusack’s character is a sociopath, but dress it up in day-glo colours, throw in Minnie Driver as love interest, and add a slick soundtrack and you’ve got proper feel-good fare. Why worry about the future?

Martin Black (Cusack) is a troubled man, although even his shrink (Alan Arkin) isn’t too keen to engage with his neurosis. A dedicated hit-man, Blank falls out with his handler (Dan Ackroyd) before heading back to his suburban alma mater for his high school reunion. Local DJ Debi (Driver) is till spinning records at her main-street record shop, but she’s still smarting from being stood up on prom night. Can Martin Blank recover his mojo, win back his girlfriend, and survive a return to his high school, all the while fighting off various professional assassins?

And what’s at stake here. really? Not much, other than whether Martin and Debi will get it together, but that’s the charm of Tom Jankiewicz’s script, loosely improvised by the cast. Many 1990’s films are now rendered somewhat inconsequential by their reliance on fading star-power to deliver high-concept, low-gravity fare, but Grosse Pointe Blank catches most of the cast on an upswing, and leans into the irony that’s it’s a rom-com first and the killing-sprees are mainly there for decoration. It’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it, and Armitage’s film is that peculiar kind of movie confection that’s more about wish fulfilment than dealing with anything real.

In short, it’s an ideal scenario that you return to high school for a reunion, and you’ve got the coolest job by far, a warm and cozy fantasy vindicated by the cartoonish, almost bloodless approach to assassinations shown here. The Reagan years were just fading, and there was still a no-questions asked approach to what anyone did for a living; Blank cheerfully tells his fellow graduates that he’s a killer and no-one turns a hair. Cusack and Driver are at their most charming, Actions have consequences in real life, but movies offer an escape from that, and Grosse Pointe Blank looks back on a happier time when you could launch into over a dozen murders and still get the girl and walk off into the sunset with a happy tune from one of several soundtrack albums.

 

Never Grow Old **** 2019

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We’ve seen this character in Westerns before; from Sergio Leone to Carry On Cowboy; the small-town mortician scuttles in the shadows between the buildings, following in the wake of a violent protagonist as he shoots his way to grim justice. Often played for laughs, the undertaker is usually a bit-part player; Ivan Kavanagh’s violent thriller puts him centre stage in a strong, involving story about morality and money.

A flash-forward shows Patrick Tate (Emile Hirsch) entering a church, shotgun in hand. It’s an image that hangs heavily over the rest of the film, as the story uncoils to reveal his deadly motivations. Tate lives and works in the small frontier town of Garlow, populated by right-thinking, sweet-natured religious people until Dutch Albert (John Cusack) and his gang arrive. They bring booze, and recruit child-prostitutes for a local brothel, and dish out death to those who stand in their way. For Tate, it’s a moral quandary, but also a business proposition; after all, he has a young wife (Déborah François) and hungry children to feed…

Never Grow Old has a timeless story, but also one that feels intensely relevant in 2019. Dutch Albert promises a better life, or at least a more moneyed existence, but at a high cost. Tate has the option of keeping his head down and not acknowledging where the cash is coming from, but it’s inevitable that his supping with the devil will lead him to the moral awakening of the final confrontation. Faith in capitalism is one thing, but it doesn’t allow entrepreneurs to operate in a moral vacuum. Kavanaugh’s story is suitably elliptical that it doesn’t have a specific political meaning, but all comers can take something away from the picture of a world where the good guys are hamstrung by trying to do the right thing while the bad guys run roughshod over the rules.

What makes Never Grow Old really worth switching your phone off for is the acting; Cusack has travelled some distance from his pretty-boy rom-com image, and he adds a personal best performance amongst the gallery of villains he’s played. Dutch has a touch of Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York, volatile, off-key, oozing menace behind a blank stare. He’s well-matched by Hirsch, also a teen idol who has conjured up the grit required to gravitate to bigger things; his good looks work against his character’s moral weakness, making something complex of Tate; Hirsch’s Jay Sebring in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time …In Hollywood brought him back to public notice, but Never Grow Old shows he’s still a first-rate lead. François also deserves credit for taking a familiar character and giving her a hard, sympathetic edge as she begs her husband to recognise that the source of their good fortune is also their undoing.

Shot in Luxembourg and Ireland, Never Grow Old is a handsome, well-mounted Western in the old-tradition; it’s the kind of film that might have genre fans standing in supermarkets examining the case, wondering if this is any good; it is good, the kind of tough, thoughtful film that’s increasingly hard to find but easy to recommend.

NEVER GROW OLD is released on DVD 23rd September 2019 from Altitude Films

Runaway Jury 2003 ***

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One of the better John Grisham novels to make it to the screen, Runaway Jury is slightly compromised by a crucial switch; while the book dealt with Big Tobacco, the film moves the area under investigation to the gun lobby to avoid comparisons with Michael Mann’s The Insider. The intrigue sits less comfortably, but Grisham’s detailed knowledge of the court system fills in the gaps. John Cusack is Nicolas Easter, a professional jury infiltrator who worms his way into the decision making process and then holds it to ransom to the highest bidder. Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman get a rare opportunity to share the screen, and Rachel Weisz adds glamour as the woman seeking to control Easter from the outside. Runaway Jury is glossy, undemanding courtroom fare, with the twists and turns of a good Law and Order, even if it doesn’t quite deliver the social analysis that it promises.

Adult World 2013 ***

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The jury has been out on the merits of Emma Roberts as an actress; growing up in public is a tough route to stardom, and it would be hard to raise much enthusiasm for any aspect of her Nancy Drew reboot. Scott Coffey’s Adult World is a deliberately worldly comedy/drama, pitching Amy, as aspiring poetess, into the frustrating and competitive environment of getting her writing published, a career choice that alienates her parents and leads her to work in a mom-and-pop pornographic bookstore. From there, Amy manages to elicit the friendship of gender-bender Rubio (Armando Riesco), co-worker Alex (Evan Peters) and develops hopes of becoming protégé of writer Rat Billings, a writer that she idolises despite his lack of interest in her or her work. After a series of roles as serial killers, it’s nice to see John Cusack give a more relaxed performance as Rat, a literary but cynical figure, a neat update on the tortured teens he made his name playing. And Roberts finally comes into her own here; from the opening scene in which she attempts suicide, Sylvia Plath-style, by sticking her head in an over, she captures youthful enthusiasm giving way to painful self-knowledge in this slight but warmly charming film.