Eastwood takes care of business in throwback action-drama
The new movie by and with Clint Eastwood is a charming and surprisingly effective mishmash—part ethnic youth gang melodrama, part comic/ironic family saga, shrewdly self-reflexive vehicle for Clint the Elder, yet another provocative development in Eastwood’s remarkably productive late phase as director/auteur, etc.
The vintage black-and-white Warner Bros. logo that appears at the outset signals that the film is also a kind of homage to the socially conscious action dramas, often with a streak of brash ethnic humor mixed in, that are a big part of that studio’s rich legacy from the 1930s. This is no slavish imitation of another era’s pictures, but rather an updated latter-day rendition of the old Warner Bros. spirit—especially that rambunctious and earnest insistence on mixing social consciousness with furiously entertaining action.
Walt Kowalski (Eastwood) is a septuagenarian widower and Korean War vet, a retired autoworker living in a Midwestern suburb now mostly populated with Asian immigrants. Crusty and curmudgeonly to a fault, he seems a thoroughly embittered old coot, resentful and suspicious toward nearly everyone in the younger generations, including his own sons, both of whom are married and apparently succeeding in life.
He tends to talk like a blue-collar racist, and he doesn’t hesitate in going for his guns when gangbangers begin disturbing the peace next door and in front of his own house. He is not at all inclined to welcome his new neighbors, a large Hmong family whose doughty matriarch proves Kowalski’s match both in icy hostility and tobacco-chaw expectorant alike.
Haunted by his own past and contemptuous of the new, multiply scattered world emerging around him, the man brandishes his one-wolf tendencies at nearly every turn. But his fierce willingness to stand up to the neighborhood’s street thugs soon makes him a hero, however reluctant, to the local Hmong community and a special favorite of the 20-somethings in the family living next door—Sue (Ahney Her) and her embattled younger brother Thao (Bee Vang). Soon, even this growling old soldier is noticing that he has more in common with his Hmong neighbors than with his own sons and grandchildren.
The rough, heartening multicultural comedy that emerges here is the most immediately appealing aspect of Gran Torino, but it’s not the whole story. Kowalski has his Archie Bunker side (and a touch of W. C. Fields as well), but he’s also an age-weathered version of Dirty Harry and the Man With No Name, and in the later films of Eastwood that means that dimensions of tragedy and violence also come into play.
Gran Torino opens with a funeral and ends with another one, and a youthful priest (rosy-cheeked Christopher Carley) figures prominently in Walt’s anguished final reckonings. Nick Schenk’s script has several brands of pretentiousness rattling around in it, but Eastwood the director successfully deflates most of them, and Eastwood the actor takes care of the rest—mostly by just being Clint.
Everything in this movie, including the acting and direction, has rough edges on it, and neither the religious ruminations nor the lampoons of middle-class family life are particularly sharp. But Walt Kowalski is a lively and interesting variation on Eastwood’s vividly durable movie persona, and those remarkable Eastwoodian movie-making instincts wring some surprisingly rich emotions out of what is in several respects a rather dubious story.