By Jack Rico
Rated: R for language throughout, and some violence.
Release Date: 2008-12-12
Starring: Nick Schenk
Official Website: NULL
Gran Torino is an amazingly over-the-top anti-racism parable but, despite its obvious shortcomings, it is nevertheless effective and affecting. The storytelling style is old fashioned in what it does and unsubtle in the way it goes about doing it, and Eastwood doesn’t plumb any new depths in his stereotyped portrayal of the film’s central character. Yet, perhaps because the ending doesn’t unspool quite as expected and perhaps because the film has something to say (even if it is presented with a heavy hand), it’s hard to deny that Gran Torino works on a certain level. This is far from Eastwood’s best work as a director, but it’s a respectable effort and is more successful that his tepid earlier 2008 effort, Changeling.
Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) is an unpleasant old coot. Following the death of his wife, he has lived alone with his dog. He is barely on speaking terms with his sons and grandchildren, and the neighborhood in which he lives is changing, becoming more ethnically diverse and troubled by gangs. He has a less-than-cordial relationship with the Asian family next door, and it becomes even colder when the son, Thao (Bee Vang), attempts to steal Walt’s 1972 Gran Torino as part of a gang initiation. He fails when Walt shows up with a rifle. Later, when the gang members arrive to give Thao a “second chance” and a fight breaks out, Walt and his rifle are again on hand and he drives the gang-bangers off. This results in Walt playing the role of reluctant hero. He is soon visited regularly by Thao’s smart and spirited older sister, Sue (Ahney Her). And Thao, as a penance for his attempted theft, is forced to work for Walt. This leads to some bonding and a growing realization on Walt’s part that, as long as the gang is around, Theo’s future is not secure.
Gran Torino uses the familiar cross-generational buddy formula as its foundation. As Walt imparts important life lessons to Thao (including how to interact with others in a “manly” fashion), Thao opens the heart of the bigoted misanthrope. Ultimately, this becomes a story about overcoming prejudice. In this, the film lathers things on a little too thickly. The transformation occurs too easily and with too little motivation. Yes, Walt gains his redemption – which is the point of the movie – but it’s questionable how effective the screenplay is in selling that redemption. Maybe we buy into it because of Eastwood or because we always like to see Scrooge wake up on Christmas morning and save Tiny Tim.
Speaking of Eastwood, his name has been mentioned alongside the phrase “Best Actor nomination” in a number of places, but to award the venerable filmmaker/actor with such a tribute in this case would be an injustice. Eastwood is playing a variation of Dirty Harry – a hard-bitten loner who at times is so over-the-top nasty that he borders on self-parody, such as when he literally growls when someone does something of which he disapproves. While it’s true that the character arc forces Walt to exhibit a new open-mindedness, there’s nothing exceptionally complex in Eastwood’s approach to the material. He played a similar role to better effect in Million Dollar Baby.
While Eastwood may not deserve acting plaudits, a case can be made for his two Asian co-stars. As Thao, Bee Vang shows more growth and development of personality than Walt. He and Eastwood evidence the right amount of chemistry – certainly enough to allow us to believe that they care for each other against all odds. Ahney Her is a real find – bright and energetic, she brings pizzazz to the role and shines brightest during a scene when Sue is giving Walt a walk-through of her house and parrying his racist remarks with well-aimed quips. Walt and Thao may be Gran Torino‘s lead characters, but Sue is the one we’re most likely to remember long after the end credits have expired.
The film gets points for its unconventional resolution, which I will not disclose here. Suffice it to say that this is a rare movie that doesn’t implode during the last reel; the filmmaking team obviously put some thought into the best way to construct the conclusion. There are some emotional moments and tears are not necessarily inappropriate although, as previously mentioned, it’s questionable whether the movie earns all of the tissues that will be used on its behalf. As parables go, this one is almost shockingly obvious but, in thinking about it, it’s not that far away from Million Dollar Baby, with both films featuring key interactions between Eastwood’s character and a priest. And, while Eastwood may not turn in a great performance, he’s a strong reliable presence whose participation somehow makes it okay to shed those tears. Despite its flaws, I appreciate Gran Torino, although I do so more with my heart than with my head.