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Review: Gran Torino

Cuddly Clint?
By GERALD PEARY  |  December 17, 2008
3.0 3.0 Stars


VIDEO: The trailer for Gran Torino

Gran Torino | Directed by Clint Eastwood | Written by Nick Schenk, from a story by Schenk and Dave Johansson | with Eastwood, Christopher Carley, Bee Vang, Ahney Her, Brian Haley, Geraldine Hughes, Dreama Walker, and Brian Howe | Warner Bros. | 116 minutes
I remember the type from my long-ago boyhood: the crotchety, foul-mouthed, filthy old man who kept your baseball if it landed on his lawn, whose dark, unwelcoming house you would tiptoe past on Halloween. There could be razor blades embedded in the candy! Gran Torino, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, gets the neighborhood geezer just right. And Clint has great sport playing him.

He's Walt Kowalski, a musty, retired Detroit autoworker who after his wife's death has hunkered down on his front porch to a daily routine of guzzling Schlitz beers from a cooler and snarling at the deterioration of his blue-collar neighborhood. Walt has no compunction about declaring what's wrong. He's an up-front racist, and where once there were white faces everywhere, now there are black and yellow ones. "Gook" and "dirty Jew" are daily blasphemes from Walt, who's still fighting the Korean War.

Is there anything good in his life? He has grown married children, and some grandchildren, and he finds them all mediocre and annoying. There's that text-messaging granddaughter (Dreama Walker) with her bare midriff and pierced belly button. Yikes! Then there's that tiresome, earnest young Father Janovich (Christopher Carley), who keeps getting into Walt's face because he promised Mrs. Kowalski he'd watch over her husband. But Walt has no use for his wife's Catholicism. What does he like, besides his beer? His dog. His tool set. His flashy, polished, 1972 Gran Torino, which is locked away in his garage.

In the weeks after his wife's funeral, Walt finds a target for his xenophobia. It's those Asians next door, a whole flock of them, going in and out as if they belonged, and talking non-English gibberish. Is this why real Americans fought in Korea and Vietnam? So Detroit would be overrun with "gooks"? "Get off my lawn!", Walt barks at the Other.

Gran Torino finds its humanist heart when Eastwood's camera moves inside the home of those Asians and, of course, they turn out to be regular people. Just like the Japanese soldiers in Eastwood's Letters from Iwo Jima. In the sweetest section of the film, cranky Walt slowly becomes buddies with his neighbors. He's drawn into an afternoon barbecue at their house; fortified by brewskies, he even dares to taste some of their odd chow. They are Hmong people from the mountains of Laos, and they arrived in America after taking the US side in the Vietnam War.

"I have more in common with these gooks than with my own spoiled, rotten family," declares Walt. But Gran Torino slips a bit when he takes a nerdy Hmong teen (Bee Vang) under his wing and teaches Thao to mutter racist slurs as part of being a real man. The irony is too leaden, and Eastwood strains hard to be cute.

Viewers looking for some old-fashioned Clint-style urban excitement, meanwhile, should stick around: there's a bunch of set pieces in which ancient Walt rechannels his wrath toward local gangs. He's got an M-1 rifle, and he's fearless in leaping out into the streets and standing up to strutting homeboys: Hmongs, Mexican-Americans, blacks. Walt morphs into Dirty Harry, with his raised eyebrows, affronted eyes, and slow burns, seething before the violence kicks in.

How is Clint doing? This is his second 2008 film as director (Changeling was the first), and it's as vigorous and entertaining a feature as you could expect from a 78-year-old filmmaker star.

Related: Review: Get Low, Mother courage, 2009 Oscar predictions, More more >
  Topics: Reviews , Social Issues, Racism and Bigotry, Clint Eastwood,  More more >
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