He’s an American classic, but does he still have any gas left in the tank? That’s the subtext in the new Clint Eastwood movie, the first for a while that he’s starring in as well as directing. Clint has been getting respectable in his old age, but not with this film he’s not; it’s intentionally crude and distinctly low-brow… Despite what some US critics seemed to assume, it’s not Oscar bait, but a popcorn movie aimed at the fans. For a while it seems almost laughably crude – then you see Clint being out-spat by the old granny who lives next door, and you do laugh – and you realise that’s fine by him.
Other films around right now tackle “important” themes – the Holocaust, Righteousness, Mortality – but Gran Torino is all about Clint: the suspicious squint, granite composure and bad-ass attitude. Is Eastwood important? If you’ve grown up with this enduring American icon, there’s no question about it. Apparently Nick Schenk’s screenplay wasn’t written specifically for him, but after seeing the film it’s impossible to imagine it with anyone else.
Walt Kowalski is a Korean War veteran and retired auto-worker (he made that 1972 Gran Torino in his garage – and thousands like it). Those days are gone, of course. Now he’s a grumpy old man and the last white guy holding on to his property in an inner-city neighbourhood that’s been taken over by Asian-Americans. Do the old values mean nothing any more? This guy’s a walking anachronism – or he would be, if did much in the way of walking.
A widower, still raw from his wife’s passing, Walt growls when his kids come near him, which isn’t often. The grandchildren are (almost) beneath contempt. As for his wife’s priest, Father Janovich (freckle-faced Christopher Carley), he’s no reason to be coming round anymore. Walt sits on a deckchair out on his front porch, a cooler of beer beside him, the Stars & Stripes hanging limp over his square patch of lawn.
It’s a portrait of arrogant, angry American isolationism – until the teenage son of his next-door neighbor encroaches on Walt’s turf. Thao (Bee Vang) nearly gets his head blown off trying to steal Walt’s prized car. To apologize, and to thank the white guy for saving him from the gangbangers who put him up to the stunt, Thao reluctantly reports for a week of whatever chores Walt might ask of him.
The grudging mutual respect that develops between them is entirely predictable, but in Eastwood’s clean, unfussy but discreetly patient direction even a banal task – like wrestling an old fridge out of the basement – assumes the bonding power Alan Ladd and Van Heflin found in digging out a stubborn tree stump in Shane. Not for the first time, Clint is drawn to take on a positive role in his community despite his ornery exterior. He doesn’t say much, but what he does say shouldn’t be taken at face value.
If you’re feeling indulgent, the film has almost as many laughs as a comedy. But if you’re easily offended, then you probably won’t sit still for it. The older man introduces Thao to his barber (John Carroll Lynch) for a lesson in guy talk, which turns out to be the art of barking invective with impunity. Meanwhile Walt’s own racist mentality thaws when Thao’s self-assured sister Sue (Ahney Her) introduces him to the pleasures of Thai food.
All the while the neighborhood punks hover in the background, waiting for the right moment to test if Dirty Old Harry is firing anything more than blanks these days.
Schenk’s screenplay isn’t subtle, and some of the young cast struggle to make it real, but Eastwood revels in the pragmatic design and roughneck humor of the piece. Walt may be a dinosaur but he carries a big footprint. In a similar way, Gran Torino is no classic, but at least it’s a star vehicle worthy of a living legend.
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