Film Review: Gran Torino

A movie only Clint Eastwood could make, 'Gran Torino' manages to be old-school and of the moment at once.

Embellishing his trademark Dirty Harry snarl with exasperated grunts and growls, a fusillade of racial epithets, and discharges of contemptuous expectoration, Clint Eastwood redefines what it means to be a grumpy old man. It’s hard to imagine a more disaffected, ornery coot than Walt Kowalski, the equivocal hero of Gran Torino. Yet Eastwood’s latest film, a morality play preaching the need for tolerance in changing times, isn’t nearly as superannuated as its protagonist would suggest. A Marine veteran, retired auto worker and unapologetic bigot, Walt is a veritable year-in-review, his hoary appearance and attitudes hiding a good heart and brave soul, qualities we’d like to imagine Americans embody. Gran Torino can resemble a civics lesson, but the film is consistently entertaining and, in these anxious times, reinforces the mantra of hope.

Having just lost his wife, aggravating his alienation from a world literally grown foreign, Walt spends his days tending to his house in a Detroit suburb, drinking beer and waxing his vintage ’72 Gran Torino, a car he helped assemble in the Ford plant where he worked. He’s the last Caucasian standing in a neighborhood invaded, from his perspective, by Asians, Hispanics and African-Americans. But Walt is an equal-opportunity hater—he despises his own family almost as much as the gooks, spics and spooks, as he puts it, who pollute his block.

One night Walt catches the 16-year-old son of the Hmong family next door attempting to steal his cherished car. Rather than punishing Thao (Bee Vang) or calling the police, he finds himself protecting the diffident teenager from the gangbangers who bullied him into the botched robbery, an action that makes him a hero to the Hmong community. In gratitude, and to make amends for his bad behavior, Thao offers to work for Walt, performing odd jobs that eventually lead to a relationship that transforms them both.

The plot is predictable, the characters familiar, the script heavy-handed—Gran Torino, like the automobile, is profoundly conventional underneath its machismo lines. Eastwood knows how to make a movie, however, and he’s not afraid to use broad strokes of primary color if they suit the subject. On the other hand, he plays Walt with self-reflexive ambiguity—you can’t watch Kowalski and not think Callahan, if for no other reason than Walt constantly cocks his finger when he’s not actually waving about his .38 caliber revolver or M-1 rifle. And like the calculatedly shocking comedians who mock political correctness (think Carlos Mencia, Larry the Cable Guy, Dave Chappelle), Eastwood insists on insulting everyone all the time…are you racist if you offend with equal opportunity?

The film proceeds from set-piece to set-piece: Kowalski rescues Thao’s sister, Sue (Ahney Her), from punks on the corner, only to have her teach him a thing or two about Asian history (Walt fought in the Korean War); he takes Thao to the local barbershop to initiate him into the bond of bonhomie (How to Swear Like a Man 101); he rudely dismisses the young priest (Christopher Carley) determined to save his soul until he decides that, like the atheist in the foxhole, it’s best to be on God’s good side when the bullets fly. As this suggests, Walt as father figure systematically morphs into Walt as Christ figure, one of the ways Gran Torino overreaches, but Eastwood has the singular ability to turn bombast into poignancy. The proof of this assertion is underscored (to pun) by the movie’s theme song (written by Clint, his son Kyle and Michael Stevens), croaked out by Eastwood himself as the credits roll…Folks, it ain’t over until the phat man sings.