Eastwood’s vintage Gran Torino has few original parts

by Glen Baity

Clint Eastwood has been a fixture on the awards circuit these last several years, batting a thousand since 2003’s Mystic River with a string of high-quality, well-received prestige pictures. Now well into his 70s, he’s doing some of the best work of his career. What he hasn’t done in a while is rough up some thugs. If you miss that Clint, the one who has been largely MIA since 1992’s Unforgiven, Gran Torino might be just what you’re looking for. The film stars Eastwood as Walt Kowalski, a septuagenarian Dirty Harry or, if you prefer, Archie Bunker with anarsenal and a real mean streak. Walt, a retired auto worker, has spent decades on his front porch, watching his white neighbors flee inner city Detroit for the suburbs and sneering at his street’s new, darkerskinned occupants. The film picks up at the funeral of Walt’s wife. Already in a permanent sour mood, his hackles are raised when a Hmong family moves in next door. Adding to his distaste is the revelation that a crew of gang bangers is stalking the family’s teenage son and daughter, who turn out to be a pair of good kids caught up with the wrong crowd. After Walt runs off the thugs one night, plucky Sue (Ahney Her) resolves to chisel away his defenses and become his friend. Meanwhile, her quiet brother Thao (Bee Vang) comes to think of Walt as odd sort of mentor. Of course, Walt’s a racist old crank who doesn’t like anyone but his dog, so these friendships will take a while to develop. There will be a few tense run-ins with the gang and assorted neighborhood tough guys before the finale, which veers off in a direction I honestly didn’t anticipate. Gran Torino doesn’t grind Eastwood’s winning streak to a halt, but it’s certainly his worst movie in years. He foregoes any pretense of subtlety in his latest — this is a film of easy lessons and uncomplicated payoffs: Racism is bad, and corrodes a person from the inside (to underscore this point, Walt is given a terminal, debilitating lung ailment that causes him to cough blood). Also: Gangs are bad. But they’re not as bad as Walt when he’s angry. Those scenes are the best part of a bad movie. When Eastwood snarls “Get off of my lawn,” most anyone would pay attention. He’s also the rare 78-year-old you really believe could win in a fistfight with a muscular 20year-old, and when he takes the gloves off it can be a lot of fun. But Gran Torino isn’t an especially action-packed movie; it’s more a study of a damaged man learning how to make contact with other humans, and it’s this aspect that rings false. I found most of the characters deeply annoying and poorly drawn, from the veterans like Eastwood himself to Vang and Her, both newcomers who could have used a little more coaching off-camera. In fairness, the script by Nick Schenk doesn’t do them any favors — nobody could make this ham-fisted dialogue sound good. Slang-heavy speech is hard to write well, and Gran Torino is a prime example of what happens when a writer misses the mark. The stabs at levity are no better — in one corny scene, Walt and his barber try to teach Thao how to talk trash like a man. I dare you to watch it without rolling your eyes. Also, though it clearly intends the exact opposite, I think the film is pretty condescending in its portrayal of minorities, all of whom seem content to be demeaned by Walt as he makes his long, slow crawl toward open-mindedness. The film eventually makes these characters affectionate for one another, because it’s easy and it’s what the audience expects. But Walt never really makes the transformation needed to excuse the heavy doses of venom he spits in the first hour. The result is a hero who doesn’t quite deserve his own legend, and a film that feels phony for celebrating him.