Warner Bros. Pictures
Release Date: December 12, 2008
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Christopher Carley, Bee Vang, Ahney Her
By Sean Chavel
Actor-director veteran Clint Eastwood’s first line of dialogue in "Gran Torino" is delivered with a growl. Perpetually crotchety and pissed, Eastwood’s Walt Kowalski is the most profane-strewn grumpy old man you’ve met in some time. But when he pulls out his rifle on some squabbling gangbangers that roll onto his lawn (“Get. Off. My. Lawn.”) Eastwood reminds you of his laconic Dirty Harry, or his William Munny, from his classic movie roles. In his crumbled homestead of Detroit, Kowalski is like McGruff the neighborhood watch dog. And he’s out to take a bite out of anybody that trespasses his territory. He’s a Korean War veteran, for Christ’s sake.
The picture opens with Kowalski hosting his wife’s funeral. He keeps a distance from his two sons, and a further distance with his grandchildren. He is a motormouth racist, especially peeved by the Korean family that lives next door to him. But surprise to him, he gets involved. He saves Sue (Ahney Her), the older teen girl of the family, from some local turf badasses groping her around. The troubled kid Thao (Bee Vang) is down on himself because he’s a wuss – he tries to stay clear of his machine-gun toting cousins that want to initiate him into their gang. Thao is thrown in against his better defenses and his challenge is to steal the old man’s car next door – a classic 1972 Gran Torino Ford.
Clint cocks his gun and growls all the more, now determined to fend off his no-good neighbors. But Sue acts as peacemaker following her rescue, and before long, the entire Hmong family is sending flowers and dumplings as thank you gifts. To eradicate family dishonor, Thao is indebted to two weeks labor on behalf of Kowalski as a form of apology. “Get me some more of that gook food,” Kowalski implores. On merit of marinade, the get-togethers with Kowalski the widower become more frequent. “Get me another beer, dragon lady,” Kowalski huffs to Sue. Kowalski uses insults as a shield to his ego, but Sue and Thao eventually figure that he’s just joking – an old man whose racist sneers are hard to shed when he now means better.
The most telling line as to the character’s loneliness: “I have more in common with these gooks than I do with my own family,” Kowalski mutters. His kids are dopes to believe that this very agile and still brawling codger a ready to move into a retirement home. Gr-r-r-r. Eastwood must go Gr-r-r-r as many times in this movie as Homer Simpson goes D’oh in an entire season on “The Simpsons.” The Gr-r-r-r goes well with his legendary squint, but while the inherent self-parody is in repetitive effect, the cranky old man redemption theme of making amends with the very culture that rankles him is fittingly poignant.
Sinking deep into neighborhood poverty, Eastwood is showing a very common slum neighborhood that often is not seen in the movies. The gangbanger language has a contemporary edge, and Sue in particular has a streetwise fortitude when defending herself from thugs – this Ahney Her actress is one surprisingly good performance and she is missed when she is absent from screen. The less proficient brother Thao, on the other hand, needs a job, needs some carpentry skills, needs some verbal skills, needs a life. Kowalski becomes mentor to a kid that’s not going to survive in this world unless he gets some hair on his chest.
Unfortunately Thao’s cousins continue to break the peace, and Kowalski has to gear up to teach these boys a lesson old school style. While at times low-key once the script’s key friendships are established, the final act goes into vendetta mode. Eastwood, in his career twilight, is more thoughtful than the mythical heroes of his young career, and kicks all clichés off to the side. “Gran Torino” is contemplative and touching, albeit blatant when it gets to Kowalski confessing all his sins. Eastwood, 78 years old, announced that this is probably his last acting role, preferring to stick behind the camera. If so, this vehicle is a worthy summation of his grizzled badass screen image. The movie progresses with the same cool, unhurried stride as Eastwood himself.