Combustible Celluloid
Stream it:
Download at i-tunes iTunes
Own it:
With: Clint Eastwood, John Carroll Lynch, Bee Vang, Ahney Her, Christopher Carley, Brian Haley, Geraldine Hughes, Dreama Walker, Brian Howe, William Hill, Brooke Chia Thao, Chee Thao, Choua Kue, Scott Eastwood, Xia Soua Chang
Written by: Nick Schenk, based on a story by Dave Johannson, Nick Schenk
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
MPAA Rating: R for language throughout, and some violence
Running Time: 116
Date: 12/08/2008

Gran Torino (2008)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Auto Biography

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Just as he did with his cowboy image in Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood now looks to revisit and revise his Dirty Harry tough guy image. Even the poster plays it up: Clint holding a gun and standing in front of the title car. Yet it's important to remember that this is not Dirty Harry. Dirty Harry could have been anyone; at one point he might have been Frank Sinatra. This film is for, by and about Clint Eastwood. Thus, Gran Torino is a strange coda, an autumnal epilogue, and yet if you love American movies and their history -- of which Eastwood is a huge part -- you need to see this.

Eastwood stars -- in reportedly his final role -- as Walt Kowalski, a retired Korean War veteran living in a little Midwest suburb, with an American flag proudly waving on his front porch. Newly widowed, he tries to settle down to a life of drinking beer, eating beef jerky and mowing his lawn, but he finds -- much to his sneering, muttering annoyance -- that his Hmong neighbors have somehow entered his life. A teenage boy, Tao Vang Lor (Bee Vang) tries to steal his prized, mint-condition 1972 Gran Torino as a gang initiation. Later, when Tao resists joining the gang, he's beat up and Walt intervenes with his trusty shotgun. Tao goes to work for Walt as penance, but the gang members turn up again. It's a pretty simple story, and Eastwood milks it for all it's worth, pulling guns, spouting offhand racist comments and taunting thugs nearly six decades younger than he is.

Thanks to Nick Schenk's canny screenplay, several Eastwoodian themes casually work their way through the narrative. Walt's wife was deeply religious and forced him to go to church. Now the young priest, Father Janovich (Christopher Carley) is trying to honor a promise to her to look after Walt, and perhaps getting him to confess. Walt refuses, with the most direct language available. This leads to several fascinating conversations about life and death; Walt has plenty to say about death, but not much about life.

Moreover, he has plenty of racist remarks up his sleeve, for Italians and Irish as well as the Asians, but they come to mean little compared to his respect for men. When Tao's sister Sue (Ahney Her) is cornered by three black thugs, her white date backs down and lets the thugs lay hands on her. Walt witnesses the event and saves the day, but reserves his harshest comments for the cowardly white boyfriend. Soon, of course, he becomes like a member of the Lor family and feels closer to them than to his real family, who are more concerned with material things. Eastwood has been accused of racism in some of his earlier films, and with this and Letters from Iwo Jima, he seems to be making up for lost ground, opening his eyes to other cultures. In Gran Torino, the measure of a man has little to do with the color of his skin and much to do with the color of his character.

This brings us to the title. Why should the Gran Torino be the centerpiece for all these issues around religion, life, death, racism and family? It's a coveted item, perhaps a symbol of manhood or Dirty Harry-type cool. Interestingly, Walt never once drives it during the course of the film. I think it's something of a MacGuffin, beginning the film as the most important element and ending it as the least important element.

Eastwood the actor gives one more memorable performance, using his beady eyes and minimalist tough guy scowl to speak more volumes than any number of grandiose, theatrical speeches. Eastwood the director rarely blunders, utilizing fluid, emotionally resonant camera moves, and cutting only sparingly. The film occasionally dips into his trademark dark shots, but not as often as usual; Gran Torino has a hint of brightness about it. It's illuminating in more ways than one.

It makes me sad to think that this is the last we'll see of the great star/filmmaker onscreen, but this final achievement makes me want to applaud.

Movies Unlimtied