I'm required to say this whenever I review an Eastwood film. That said, Gran Torino probably ranks in the bottom half of Eastwood's past six or seven films, which is sort of like saying Oprah isn't quite the richest woman in the world. And while I've been tempted to conclude that his directorial outings fare better without him in front of the camera, this film is Exhibit A in the case to prove me wrong.
Eastwood directs and stars as Walt Kowalski, a Korean War veteran and widower who is one of the last "American" holdouts in a Detroit slum populated by immigrants and gangs. A retired Ford assembly-line worker, Walt is cantankerous, profane, and every bit the cuddly racist as Archie Bunker. He is no fan of his new Hmong neighbors (a culture of people from Thailand, Laos and China, we're told). He's also not fond of the local black youths ("What the hell are you spooks up to?" he growls at a trio of teenagers), the local Mexican-Americans, or the Asian-American who has replaced his retired white physician. By the time it hits the DVD shelf, this film will no doubt achieve cult status as a count-the-racial-slurs drinking game. Only the N-word appears off-limits.
Walt, like Bunker, is an equal-opportunity misanthrope; he even resents his own family, especially his Toyota-peddling son and his gum-chewing, bellybutton-piercing granddaughter. However, like Playboy centerfolds, Walt has likes and dislikes: he lovingly waxes the film's namesake, his '72 Ford Gran Torino. He flies a gargantuan American flag on his porch, and keeps a gun in seemingly every nook and cranny of his post-WWII house. Hell, Walt even mows his lawn with a manual catch-mower. Let's just say if you take your eyes off the screen for more than four seconds, you'll miss about 10 middle-America clichés.
Walt's beloved Ford is a plot device to unite him with Thao, the teenage Hmong boy next door, played by newcomer Bee Vang. Before long, Walt has found the surrogate grandson he wishes he had. Naturally, when Hmong gangs try to recruit Thao and intimidate his family, we find out that Walt's craggy disposition is camouflage for a vigilante heart of gold.
For Clint the actor, longevity has its benefits. Eastwood injects a smorgasbord of his past characters into Gran Torino. Walt frowns with smoldering suspicion like Secret Service Agent Frank Horrigan from In the Line of Fire. He channels the swagger, intimidation and wit of Dirty Harry. Most effective, however, is Walt describing to his priest the atrocities he committed during the Korean War. In these moments, Clint seems to summon the regret and inner turmoil of the murderous William Munny from 1992's Unforgiven (in my opinion Eastwood's best film, and perhaps the best Western ever made).
While Eastwood acts his ass off, the script scrambles to cover too many weighty issues: Bigotry, religion, immigration, and even the economic fallout from the decline of America's Big Three automakers seem to be competing for your attention.
Those principles are worthy of contemplation at any other time, but not while a movie icon is giving his best (and perhaps last?) leading performance.Gran Torino ★★★✩
Starring Clint Eastwood, Bee Vang and Christopher Carley. Directed by Clint Eastwood. Screenplay by Nick Schenk.