Retired Korean War vet Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) worked for Ford for fifty years, doesn't understand his yuppie sons and, after burying his wife Dorothy, has little to do but drink beer and mow his lawn. His brick front home shows its owner's pride, but Walt is dismayed how the rest of the formerly Polish-American neighborhood, now completely Asian, has deteriorated. He has nothing to do with his neighbors except slinging racial epithets, until, that is, the sixteen year-old boy next door tries to steal his cherry 1972 "Gran Torino."
It is almost inconceivable that first time screenwriter Nick Schenk didn't have Eastwood in mind when he wrote the character of Walt Kowalski because after seeing his performance, it is next to impossible imagining anyone else in the role. Who but Clint could literally growl and not come across as a caricature? As directed by Eastwood ("Million Dollar Baby," "Changeling"), "Gran Torino" is a solid piece of unfrilly filmmaking that works as both character study and blue collar drama. Not only that, but Eastwood's volleys of racial slurs are so outrageous it's as if Dirty Harry embraced his inner Don Rickles (although Walt is funny without meaning to be).
"Gran Torino" is also of a piece with "Million Dollar Baby." In both films, Eastwood spars with a priest - in the former experiencing a crisis of faith, in the newer, finding it. Walt's Detroit neighborhood has changed for the worse, just like the run down L.A. boxing club of "Baby." And like Frankie Dunn, Walt notes a young, disadvantaged person he initially has no use for that turns his perspective around late in life. He must go to war to save that person from family members and make a huge sacrifice to give the person what they need.
The film begins with Walt among his family, yet clearly, distinctly separate from them. With his wife gone, there is no one to buffer the gruff old coot from his sons, Mitch (Brian Haley, "The Man Who Wasn't There") and Steve (Brian Howe, "The Pursuit of Happyness"), who think that 'Dad's still living in the 50's.' Walt's grandkids show no respect, his granddaughter Ashley (Dreama Walker, TV's "Gossip Girl") arriving at her grandmother's funeral with bare midriff and pierced navel, then asking what will happen to his classic car when he leaves this mortal coil. When Thao (Bee Vang) rings his bell on the day of the funeral, Walt tells him to 'show some respect zipperhead, we're grieving here,' before slamming the door in his face.
Thao is a shy kid and a good kid, but he's always being picked on and saved by his cousins Spider (Doua Moua) and Smokie (Sonny Vue), who insist he should join their gang for the privilege. Reluctantly, Thao attempts their initiation rite - to steal the old man's Torino - but he's caught by the rifle-wielding Walt. When Spider's gang show up to beat on Thao for having failed, they tumble onto Walt's lawn and are all treated to the barrel of his rifle and a 'Get off my lawn.' Walt's tough guy move unwittingly earns him the respect and admiration of the entire Asian community for having faced down the gang bangers and unwanted gifts are left on his stairs.
Things begin to change when Walt, driving home in his pickup, observes Thao's older sister Sue (Ahney Her) being harassed by three Black males while her white wannabe boyfriend backs off. 'What the hell you three spooks up to?' Walt demands, before actually defusing the situation (using a pistol this time) and bringing Sue home. Sue has a feisty personality and Walt's gruffness is no deterrent to her. She explains that his neighbors are Hmong, hill people who fought with the U.S. during the Vietnam war, then fled when the Americans pulled out. Sue begins engaging Walt, who also begins to form a mentor relationship with Thao when Thao's mother offers his labor for a week as payback for his attempted crime. Walt realizes 'I have more in common with these gooks than my own spoiled family.' In the end, Walt must protect more than his lawn from Spider's gang.
Eastwood's performance is a real treat, so outrageously un-PC that one cannot be offended, so grounded in moral conviction one must root for him. He's a tragic case, an old man of no use to anyone, just like the old car that goes no further than his driveway. His metamorphosis under Sue's tutelage is touching and funny. Clint's Walt approaches the Hmong food as if it might bite, only to end up surrounded by older women pleased to watch him wolf down their specialities. They no longer get turned away on his doorstep, especially when he spies one holding a platter of 'those chicken dumpling things.' Eastwood makes it perfectly acceptable that the Hmong teenagers would hang with him because he's an amusing anomaly, a sort of hero and more assimilated into American culture as they wish to be.
The only other recognizable actor in "Gran Torino" is John Carroll Lynch ("Zodiac") who plays the Italian barber Walt likes to verbally spar with. They have great chemistry and the scene where they try to 'teach' Thao how to 'talk like a man' acts not only as another amusing opportunity to let rip with the racial insults, but to show how accepting these guys can really be beneath all the show. Eastwood also enjoys nice screen time with Christopher Carley ("Lions for Lambs") as Father Janovich, the man who promised Dorothy he'd get Walt to go to confession. Their moral debates define their characters and Carley's another youth ('I think you're a twenty-seven year-old virgin who likes to hold the hands of suspicious old ladies.') we believe would stake a strong interest in Walt. The next door Lor family is made up of nonprofessionals all making their debuts and they're all good with Ahney Her having the showiest role and non-English speaking Chee Thao as Grandma the only cast member to give Eastwood pause.
The production is straightforward, the Highland Park neighborhood authentic (although it occurred to me more than once that the Asian population would be unlikely to let their property become as run down as depicted here). Surprisingly for an Eastwood film, there are several continuity gaffes, from disappearing objects to punched out cabinets that miraculously repair themselves and action that begins in broad daylight then switches to evening with no sense of time having passed. Listen for Clint's gravelly rendition of the title song over closing credits - he can't sing, but it's poignant, singing duties gradually taken over by song cowriter (with Eastwood's son Kyle and Michael Stevens) Jamie Cullom.
"Gran Torino" is a thoroughly satisfying, old-fashioned entertainment from one of our remaining American icons. As I sat and watched it, I couldn't help but mentally chant 'Cliiiinnnnnt.' There's no one like him.
Robin's review coming soon!.
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