A film review by Craig J. Koban


2008, R, 116 mins.

Walt Kowalski: Clint Eastwood /Thao: Bee Vang / Sue: Ahney Her / Father Janovich: Christopher Carley / Mitch Kowalski: Brian Haley / Karen Kowalski: Geraldine Hughes / Steve Kowalski: Brian Howe / Ashley Kowalski: Dreama Walker / Trey: Scott Eastwood

Directed by Clint Eastwood / Written by Nick Schenk.

Clint Eastwood is one of those highly rare breeds that belong on a very short list of film performers that have transcended their images as actors and have instead become mythic and immortal screen icons.  He commands and deserves worthy placement alongside figures like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Marlon Brando, and John Wayne for how he conjures up such a unified collective memory of his eternal film personas.   I am sure that a hundred years from now Chaplin’s Little Tramp will be affectionately remembered with the same reverence as Eastwood’s "Man With No Name" western legend.  Few people in the industry can achieve such an illustrious status, and Eastwood is no exception. 

He’s got one of the greatest scowls in movie history, not to mention that quintessential squint of the eyes that pierces through the intimidated adversaries that he effortlessly has ploughed through as the nameless anti-hero of those unforgettable Spaghetti westerns, or as San Francisco officer "Dirty Harry" Callahan, or as outlaw Josey Wales or as aging gunslinger William Munny.   That cold, detached stare he has looks at people below him with equal parts disdain and deeply internalized anger.  Eastwood’s personas were also men of few words, but even if their willingness to enunciate was limited, the few words they did speak counted...and spoke volumes.  These are characters that never apologized for who they were; they simply existed within a tight moral vacuum within themselves, and it was their way or sure as hell no way at all.  

Decades from now, this is the Eastwood that we’ll all recall and still idolize. 

The 78-year-old’s newest film, GRAN TORINO (taking its title from, of course, the classic 1972 automobile of the same name that muscle car enthusiasts still swoon over) is one that tries to give Eastwood an opportunity at playing a character that, at face value, seems removed from his other archetypal hero roles.  Yet, the film inevitably is more of a loving chronicle of how we remember Eastwood’s entire film legacy as a rough and tough warrior exuding serious amounts of macho bravado.  Much like what John Wayne – the most recognizable and mythic of all western screen actors – did in THE SEARCHERS, Eastwood takes a crack at playing a character with a deep and harboring hatred of those ethnically different than him.  Eastwood’s Walt Kowalski is not just a bigot like Wayne’s Ethan Edwards was…he’s a monumentally hot-blooded, equal opportunist racist that despises all those that are not Caucasian.  The litany of ethnic slurs that he utters during the film is so vast and varied that you kind of find yourself sitting there in absolute amazement: This is a cantankerous old man at the winter of his life that has no social tact or truly redeeming qualities whatsoever and whose only real pleasures in life are: (1) his prized ’72 Torino, (2) his war medal from Korea, (3) his dog, and (4) his predilection to insulting people without any remorse in the world.  War commendations aside, there should be no reason to like this sour lout of a man.

Alas, Kowalski has one redeeming quality, and that is the fact that he is played by an incomparable silver screen marvel.  This, of course, begs the question as to whether or not an actor’s immortal and universally celebrated image in the movies can overcome what should be our rabid hatred of the mean and spiteful character that he plays. The answer is an obvious 'yes', because no matter how insulting, verbally degrading, and morally repugnant Kowalski is during the film, it’s impossible to detest the man because Eastwood’s larger than life shadow is cast all over him…and the star intuitively knows this.  No one is probably better suited than Eastwood at using our communal recollections of his body of work to his advantage in crafting a lasting screen presence in his films, and GRAN TORINO is no exception.  Kowalski, as a result, does not really materialize as a wholly original character, but more as a satisfying ode to the hard edged men that Eastwood has canonized throughout his career.  When Eastwood looks at some young street hoodlums with sincere mocking disdain and asks, “Ever notice how you come across somebody once in a while you shouldn't have messed with? That's me,” it’s impossible to disassociate Kowalski from the pantheon of evocative Eastwood  roles.  In a way, GRAN TORINO is an affectionate homage to that 50-year-old tough guy image, which is how it manages to overcome many of its several flaws. 

You will fondly remember Eastwood’s presence in the film much more than the story that surrounds him.  Walt Kowalski is the most unpleasant of crusty cretins, who was once of man of duty and honor fighting in the Korean War, but in the present day he's a somewhat lonely widow that is semi-estranged from his grown-up children.  His wife has just recently passed on, he's barely on speaking terms with any of his immediate family, and he lives in a blue-color Detroit neighborhood that is slowly becoming more diverse with the ethnic groups that are moving in.  He hates the “new” people to his block, which he feels taints it like a social disease.  While coldly bottling up all of his hatred of the new neighbors around him, Walt lives a life of quieter repetition: he sits on his porch, drinks a lot of beer, fixes the odd thing, slavishly buffs his Torino that he helped make on a Detroit assembly line decades ago, and…well…the cycle repeats itself daily. 

 When a fairly respectable and decent Asian family moves in directly next door, this is almost the straw that broke the camel's back for Walt (“Why do gooks have to move in next door to me,” he spouts out, right in front of one of his new elderly neighbors, without a care at all).  One thing he really hates is the increasing gang presence in the area, which does not sit well for the son of his neighbor, Thao (Bee Vang) whose cousin is a member of one particularly awful gang.  They coerce Thao to become a member of their exclusive club, but part of the initiation is, yup, to sneak into Walt’s garage late at night and steal his precious Torino.  Not knowing that Walt is a war veteran that is as skilled with his M-1 rifle now as he was in the past, Thao has a rather nasty meeting with the incredibly cranky old coot; the kid’s just damn lucky to still have his head on him after the incident.

Another altercation occurs between the thugs and Thao (they want to give him a second chance), but Thao refuses which leads to the gang accosting him and his family.  The skirmish spills out on to Walt’s front yard, but the vindictive war vet pops out with his rifle, points it at the youthful vermin and – in prototypical, Eastwoodian, gravel-voiced splendor – he sternly tells the creeps to “get off his lawn.”  They listen.  Thao’s family, especially his sister Sue (Ahney Her) deeply appreciates Walt’s selfless act, but Walt will have nothing of it.  Despite the fact that he has clearly saved the boy from harm, he nonetheless still harbors ill feelings towards these people, as he frequently – both in front of them and behind closed doors – labels them as everything from “chinks” to “zipperheads” to “slanty-eyed” to “barbarians” to “Fish Head Charlie Chans”.   Oh…he does hate blacks as well, as presented in one sly scene where he saves Sue from some inner city hoods by calling them “spooks” while scaring them out of their pants with just a disconnected and steely eyed stare and a verbal threat of intended violence (pure and unadulterated Clint badassery).  Even if it logical appears next-to-impossible to believe that a elderly man could possibly intimidate three physically superior street youths, you easily check your brain at the door because Eastwood looks so impassably mean and cold-hearted while doing so.  He's the most intimidating geriatric of the movies.

Because Sue and her family appreciate what Walt has done for Thao, they send the lad over to his house to perform a week of menial service as repayment for attempting to steal his car.  Of course, Walt initially shows nothing but antagonism towards the troubled and socially isolated youth, but the two predictably begin to find some common ground (the film becomes a predictable variation of the buddy-formula where opposites grow to appreciate and understand each other...blah, blah, blah).  Walt takes it upon himself to “man-up” his new meager-minded friend (which also includes a farley hilarious sequence where he and his barber try to teach the teen to talk trash and appear more "normal") and show him the ins and outs of working for a living and trying to pick up the opposite sex.  However, just when the pair grown to become tight friends, Thao and Sue are faced with another violent altercation with the street gang that initially gave them problems, which leads Walt to the harsh realization that this Hmong family that have recently become his friends will find no peace in the world…unless he does something about it.  He decides to take matter into his own hands, but the resulting climatic stand-down may surprise many viewers’ expectations. 

As a would-be anti-racist parable, GRAN TORINO severely lacks tact: this film is about as subtle as a gun shot to the face with a .357 Magnum.  The script for the film (penned by Nick Schenk) plays more like a laughable final DIRTY HARRY installment (which the Internet falsely rumored the film to be for months) than a thoughtful and somber mood piece like CRASH.  The script itself is a laundry list of routine, ham infested, and painfully predictable plot developments (aside from the film’s final showdown, which daringly works against Eastwood’s quick-drawing western gunslinger veneer, even when the final results are more heavy-handed than they should be, complete with overwrought biblical imagery).  We know with unbelievable clarity that the relationship between Thao and Walt will emerge positively and act as a catalyst for Walt’s transformation from a hostile and malevolent racist to a decent man that does what’s right, the latter element which is telegraphed with a tremendous amount of trite obviousness.  As a cross-generational buddy film, GRAN TORINO goes through the redundant motions and its attempts to find heartfelt emotion in Walt’s transformation (which occurs too systematically and with very little motivation to be taken seriously) is lacking in dramatic payoff.  Of course, this is a redemption film, and Walt does find some, but the final results lack the melancholic and powerful shockwave that, for example, MILLION DOLLAR BABY had, a similar film involving an Eastwood character internally struggling to find answers to a very difficult personal dilemma.      

It’s true that GRAN TORINO lacks considerable sophistication on a story level, but I was also a bit surprised by the lack of interest some of the supporting characters are given.  Walt’s two sons and their families are never developed beyond the realm of one-note, yuppie, Black Berry carrying stereotypes, and a semi-crucial young priest character (played rather flatly and without much a true backbone by Christopher Carely) is presented more as an afterthought than a fully-fledged character.  Although I do think that Ahney Her brings some decent sass and spunk to her part as Sue, her brother character, played by Bee Vang, is unsatisfyingly blasé and wooden.  This is Vang's first crack at acting, and although Eastwood should be given props for not going to the obvious route of hiring well-known actors for these roles (which could have been distracting), Vang is so remorsefully stilted in his line readings that you never truly invest emotionally in his character or his relationship with Walt.  If Vang’s weak delivery was cringe worthy, then a closing credits theme song – partially sung by Eastwood himself, usually noted for being a gifted musician and scorer of his films – is even more out of place, squirm inducing, and frankly jaw dropping.  Very few end credit jingles so thoroughly took me out of the moment as this one did. 

Warner Brothers is hoping for a large Oscar push for GRAN TORNIO, and they most likely will get it.  That’s a shame, because the film is a pale, fairly disposable, and lesser entry on Eastwood’s directorial resume that achieved masterful status in the last decade with powerful and evocative films like 2003’s MYSTIC RIVER, 2004’s MILLION DOLLAR BABY, and this year’s epic and moving CHANGELING, the latter being Clint’s most thoroughly compelling and lavishly mounted film in years.  When compared to those great gems. GRAN TORNIO is an undistinguished glint, which makes its preordained status as a multiple Oscar nominee all the more unwarranted.  However, having said that, I found the film mostly agreeable and enjoyable, largely because of one single element: Eastwood’s presence (his first foray in front of the camera in four years, and perhaps his last).  If you view the film as a meaningful and spiritual redemption tale and an anti-racism parable, then GRAN TORINO more than reveals itself as a pedestrian bit of Academy Award clap-trap theatrics.  But, if you look at the film less as an searing and considerate urban city drama and more as a western with a modern day trappings, then GRAN TORINO is a bit of nostalgic, old-school, retro-fun for the man that has made an illustrious career of making these type of movies that will forever be engrained in our consciousnesses.  With any other actor in the film, GRAN TORINO would have been laughable.  With Eastwood holding the reigns with resolute firmness, the film works beyond its simplistic and prosaic themes and story and becomes almost larger than life.   

That’s the stuff of legendary movie icons, folks.

  H O M E