At Quality 16 and Showcase
4.5 out of 5 Stars
Even people with little to no exposure to Clint Eastwood know that “Dirty Harry” and “The Good, The Bad & The Ugly” are macho, gunslinging classics. But how many people really understand Eastwood beyond his trademark 1970s-era action flicks?
Upon first glance, it seems “Gran Torino” mocks more than forty years of Eastwood’s macho movies. In the film, he plays 78-year-old Walt Kowalski, an old curmudgeon who wields a shotgun and growls at minority gangsters to “get off (his) lawn.” Is old Clint just going for laughs? Or maybe he’s just attempting to terrify viewers with his stereotypical masculinity. “Gran Torino seems to beg both laughter and terror, and that’s probably what Eastwood was going for.
“Gran Torino” is one of Eastwood’s most complicated, self-reflective and engrossing films. A melding of the traditional and the progressive in terms of filmmaking and screenwriting, “Torino” is an amazing apex for Eastwood. Along with “Milk,” it is one of the great American films of 2008.
Ostensibly, the character Walt is a racist old sonuvabitch. He’s a veteran of the Korean War, a Ford Motor Co. retiree and a recent widower. To his disappointment, his son sells foreign cars, his grandkids have no decency and he’s newly surrounded by Asian neighbors. So, unsurprisingly, Walt’s a grumpy old man.
But when a Hmong teen named Thao (newcomer Bee Vang) is dared to steal Walt’s prized green Ford Gran Torino, everything begins to change for Walt. What begins as satire turns into a culture clash.
After nearly shooting Thao during the attempted car theft, Walt later saves him from the gang that provoked Thao to steal the Torino in the first place. In a strange twist of fate, Walt later befriends Thao and becomes a mentor and protector for the young man, his sister and his family. In turn, Walt begins to learn about the Hmong culture, and more importantly, he starts to change. Sure, he fights with his priest, his barber and his own health, but by interacting with Thao and his family, Walt reorganizes himself for the better.
Walt later teaches Thao the value of good, old-fashioned craftsmanship and courtesy, which are refreshingly simple themes throughout the film. But Thao’s earnestness and sincerity teach Walt about the need to confide in others and not judge people simply by their race or age. The themes may superficially feel redundant, but placed in a realistic 21st century context, they feel new again.
Eventually, tensions escalate between Walt and the Asian gang. All the while, Walt does everything he can to teach Thao what it means to be a man. The film speeds up to a heartbreaking climax. “Gran Torino” showcases Eastwood’s in his supposed last acting role, and naturally it offers a certain kind of closure. But the conclusion is more rich and rewarding than could ever be expected.
Walt never connected with his own sons, and his transference is clear and fair. What does it mean to be a man? Who the hell knows? But by its ending, “Gran Torino” communicates all the right ideas about living a complete life.
Still, it’s a crowd-pleaser at its core; a film made for people to laugh and cheer with. Newcomer Nick Schenk’s screenplay has great heart and ideas, and Eastwood gives everything perfect life in a way only he can.
Legendary screenwriter William Goldman (“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “Absolute Power”) once wrote about how genuine and lasting Clint Eastwood is, and he’s absolutely right. Goldman stated something to the effect of: Eastwood is better, truer and taller than any actor out there. Stallones and Costners may rise and fall, but Eastwood has directed and performed better than any other Hollywood star. With that in mind, “Gran Torino” could be the sunset of a long and fruitful age of film.
Eastwood may always be regarded as the gun-toting American with the trademark rasp and glint. But in the wake of “Gran Torino,” all of his movies may be met with a new appreciation. Eastwood daringly acts his own age in “Torino,” and in the film he puts his entire career in perspective. The film works so well because it’s a parody, a serious drama and a high-minded personal reflection all at once.
After seeing “Gran Torino,” audiences might finally believe that Eastwood is more self-conscious than he shows about the works with which he has been involved. When he was making the “Dirty Harry” films, the left demonized him as the patron saint of lawless violence. Yet, watching “Harry” flicks after “Torino” reveals a richer context. They depict a man with an opinion who knew that by escalating the grandiosity of each film, people would see the fallible qualities of stoic masculinity.
Yeah, Walt flexes his rifle with a case of Pabst, but his journey is as lovable as it is laughable. “Gran Torino” is Clint Eastwood, more skilled and aware than he’s ever been. And we may finally, actually understand him. Like the man who directed and starred in it, and the car that gave it its title the film is an American classic.