Available this week on DVD, “Gran Torino” is emphatically a Clint Eastwood movie. The 78-year old actor/director/producer/songwriter is a one-man gang here, playing a character who may remind some viewers of “Dirty” Harry Callahan. He has no problem sticking a big gun in the face of a punk and telling him, teeth gritted, who’s in charge. If he doesn’t quite say, “Make my day,” you feel that he could.
The difference is that Walt Kowalski is a former autoworker, not a San Francisco cop. We first see him standing beside his wife’s coffin at her funeral. We first hear him growling as he watches his children and grandchildren, all of whom he despises. At home, he seems even more isolated, his old Detroit neighborhood now heavily populated by a wave of immigrants, such as the Hmong family who live next door.
For their part, the Lor family have no love for the embittered, grumpy old man who scowls at them from his porch, accompanied by his old dog and a cooler full of Pabst Blue Ribbon. When a local gang tries to forcibly recruit the gentle son, Thao (Bee Vang), a fight breaks out, spilling over into Walt’s carefully-tended lawn and bringing him out with his Korean War-era rifle. (We later learned he’s killed thirteen men, though he’s not proud of it.) He snarls at all the “gooks” to get off his property.
The only peacemaker in this crowd is Thao’s sister, Sue (Ahney Her), an intelligent, confident young woman who steps across the boundaries and tries to befriend “Wally.” When it becomes clear that Thao has tried to steal Walt’s only beloved, a 1972 Gran Torino that Walt helped build himself, Sue mediates and translates, negotiating a settlement by which Thao (or “Toad,” as Walt styles him) has to work for Walt to make up for the family disgrace.
From that point, the movie becomes the story of Walt and Thao’s growing relationship. He tries to teach the diffident, soft-spoken youngster what it means to be one of the guys, how to talk, act, and, in short, become a man. If anything, Walt’s own definition of manhood brings on the crisis. Eastwood is at his best in these scenes, carrying the movie and opening out Walt’s character beyond the stereotype he represents.
In fact, the use and limits of stereotypes forms much of the movie’s appeal, both comic and serious. Working with Minnesotan Nick Schenk’s first screenplay, Eastwood the Oscar-winning director takes a low-budget film and turns it into a box-office winner. He pulls a relatively inexperienced cast along with him, for the most part, though some key roles are weak and some running jokes are overdone, losing their impact. The ending has been cleverly prepared for, but it still comes as a surprise.
“Gran Torino” is rated “R,” chiefly for language and violence. Rumor has it this may be Eastwood’s last time in front of the camera. If so, his fans—count me in—will miss him. Rent this one and enjoy a veteran actor/director in superb form.