Grosse Pointe Blank 1997 ****


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.


Death Wish 3 1985 ***


Third sequels go off fast, like milk left out of the fridge, particularly if the second entry in the franchise is as vile as Death Wish 2. Presumably feeling that there was no more mileage in terms of gritty hatefulness, exploitation and misogyny, Winner goes off in a silly post-Rambo new direction with the third turgid chapter of the continuing adventures of taciturn vigilante Paul Kersey, played with minimal effort and no application whatsoever by Charles Bronson. Kersey is back in New York, and Winner opens his film with a typical lack of flair by showcasing the side of a bus that Kersey is travelling on through the opening credits. After a few decent location shots in Port Authority bus station, the action shifts to a strange post-apocalyptic landscape; for one reason or another, presumably cheapness, Winner elects to shoot his NYC drama in what looks like an old schoolyard in England, and the cognitive dissonance is mind-blowing in an Inception-type way. With three American cars and a couple of Victorian buildings, Winner and his team abjectly fail to conjure up the idea that we’re in NYC for a split second, and watching Bronson, Martin Balsam and Ed Lauter bumble around dull English street-corners gives Death Wish 3 the unprofessional air of an amateur/student film. Kersey arrives in NYC to spend time with a friend, but the attentions of various thugs including Bill and Ted’s not incredibly intimidating Alex Winter, set him on a Energiser-bunny rampage with one predictable take-away; ‘Blow the scum away.’ But rather than shocking the neighborhood, Kersey’s kill-fest delights various pensioners in the area, who are goey-eyed at his gift for constructing lethal man-traps and cheer from the windows as he mows down an army of thugs to create a kill-count that goes into double figures. Mourning widows break out ear-to-ear grins at the thought of impending violence, families share a smile like it’s Christmas Day when they hear of Kersey’s murderous sprees, while Jimmy Page contributes a raft of inappropriate music that sounds like a particularly jocular game-show theme. The mark of a truly terrible film is that, even on a third or fourth viewing, there are layers of awfulness to be discovered, and Death Wish 3 is a very rich text indeed.

John Wick 2014 *****


Always a good mover, Keanu Reeves’s combination of Zen-blankness and physical mobility made him a perfect action lead in Speed, The Matrix; Chad Stahelski and David Leitch‘s thriller gives him plenty of opportunity to show his skills. Taking a lead from the writings of Alistair MacLean, we’re talking about tough ex-agents rather than genetically modified soldiers. John Wick is a man on a mission, to revenge the death of his dog, which was given to him by his dying wife. Wick rips through hotels, nightclubs, and a kill-a-minute as he rages through a rigorous, glorious HR cull of various crime organisations, with nice work in support from Willem Dafoe, Dean Winters, Ian McShane and Michael Nyquist.

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover 1989 ***


Peter Greenaway’s brief flirtation with the mainstream produced his most accessible and shocking film in 1989; although his usual visual tropes are on show, with nudity and fruit forming part of his painterly compositions, The Cook, The Thief is a chilling tale of gangsters and retribution. Michael Gambon is Albert, the crime-boss who uses his ill-gotten gains to live a gluttonous lifestyle, and Helen Mirren is his wife, who finds herself drawn to one of the patrons of the restaurant that Albert frequents. Writer/director Greenaway is a class act, but that doesn’t stop him from exploring the darker side of human nature in this violent, hypnotic film. It may be theatrical in conceit, but it’s a perfect analogy for the excesses of Britain in the late 80’s.

Eastern Promises 2007 ***


David Cronenberg coaxes a breath-taking performance from Viggo Mortensen in this violent, sordid thriller set in modern London.  When nurse Anna (Naomi Watts) finds a dying girl in a London hospital, she’s provided with a clue which connects the death to prosperous restaurant owner Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), whose Son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) is set to inherit his criminal empire. Kirill’s driver Nikolai (Mortensen) is part of the team, and is all too cognisant of the dangers of taking on the organised crime syndicates that employ him. Written by Stephen Knight (Dirty Pretty Things), Easter promises features uniformly excellent performances, particularly from Mortensen; the brutal fight in a bath-house is one of cinema’s most intense and shocking action sequences, not least because both of the men fighting are vulnerably naked throughout.

Dom Hemingway 2013 ****


Jude Law’s erratic career as a leading man gets a shot in the arm from Richard Shepard’s tough, abrasive gangster drama, featuring Law as Dom Hemingway. Introduced with a hypnotic monologue in prison, Hemingway springs out into the outside world with a vengeance, chasing after money he’s owed and prepared to administer beating after beating on the way.

Hemingway hooks up with his old pal Dickie (Richard E Grant, to find that the world has gone to the dogs while he’s been behind bars. Unable to smoke in pubs, his wife has gone and his daughter doesn’t want anything to do with him. Dom and Dickie head for the South of France to track down his missing money, and end up in a drugs, booze and sex romp that leaves Hemingway broke and vengeful.

Although the revenge narrative is more conventional, Law makes Hemingway a shockingly original force of nature, the opening scenes are wildly unpredictable as he faces up to various gangster types. And things are brought to a tense climax in an extended scene where Dom attempts to prove that he’s still got the skills to crack a safe, although the manner in which he does so it shocking and surprising. Law has the charisma of Michael Caine in the 1960’s in these scenes, puffed up, arrogant and yet with a few clear chinks in his personality.

Ignored in the UK, where gangster flick are ten-a-penny, Dom Hemingway is not for everyone; his attitudes to sex, money and women are decidedly retro. But he’s a fascinating, vital character, and Shepard’s film gives him plenty of opportunity to vent his spleen through a full-on performance from Law.

Film Authority