Filmmaker struggles with the price of vengeance

In 1993, coming off “Unforgiven’s” Oscar win, Clint Eastwood made a little movie called “A Perfect World” in which he played a lawman who dreams of apprehending a kidnapper without firing a single shot — a far cry from the director’s trigger-happy Dirty Harry days.

But that perfect world, Eastwood would probably be the first to tell you, simply doesn’t exist (as was the unfortunate case in the titular film). Where Eastwood lives, laws have their limits, rules are seldom adequate and justice tends to be subjective. But the notion that forgiveness, for the first time in his career, wasn’t entirely out of the question marked a significant change for Eastwood (just think how different “Million Dollar Baby” might be if his character spent the rest of the movie getting even).

“Clint is a champion of the underdog,” explains longtime producing partner Robert Lorenz. “I think he sees himself as an underdog. He talks about how he struggled in school and so forth, and here he is today, this huge success story. He wants everyone to get a chance, and he admires everyone who has the guts to take that chance.”

Though Eastwood seems to leave thematic interpretations of his work to the critics (releasing four films within a 15-month period leaves little time for navel gazing), such issues surface throughout his late-career hot streak, with each film’s resolution typically raising more questions than it answers: What price vengeance, how to manage grief and victimization without doing more harm than good, as well as other matters of ethics and morality.

Consider Walt Kowalski, the surly soul at the center of “Gran Torino.” He’s a man set in his ways — a Korean War vet none too pleased that his old neighborhood is being overrun by Hmong families. The Asian residents bring back negative memories of his time in the service, until run-ins with a local gang force him to reconsider his prejudices, especially toward the teenage boy next door. Here, both Kowalski and the Hmong kid serve as outsiders, and the film sees the tough old vet atoning for past wrongs by protecting his young neighbor.

“In keeping with his desire to continue progressing as a director and an actor, this script takes all the other characters he’s played — like the Dirty Harrys and William Munny of ‘Unforgiven’ — and evolves them a little further,” Lorenz says.

Eastwood didn’t direct “Dirty Harry,” but he was a powerful enough star at the time to pick Don Siegel for the job. In the realm of genre entertainment, the series makes for extremely pointed social commentary. The “Dirty Harry” mythology paints Eastwood as the one man willing to cross the line to bring the scum of society to justice while revealing the character’s own bigotry by pairing him with African-American, Latino and female partners.

But can justice really be dealt at the end of a .44-caliber Magnum? Later projects raised even more complex questions about the relationship between those who write the rules and the little people they exploit, exposing corruption everywhere from the wild West (“Unforgiven”) to the Oval Office (“Absolute Power”).

“He likes stories where it’s one person standing up against society for what is right,” explains “Changeling” screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski.

“I love historical things anyway,” Eastwood says of Straczynski’s script, about a single mother in 1920s Los Angeles who fought City Hall after the disappearance of her son. “As we were doing it, you were constantly reminding yourself that this actually happened and a woman went through this dilemma.”

The Los Angeles of “Changeling” may give the impression of a civilized modern city, but in many ways, it still reflects the lawless frontier of Eastwood’s many oaters.

“When the chief of police says: ‘I want criminals taken off the streets. I want them brought in dead, not alive,’ that’s right out of the L.A. Times,” Eastwood says. “If you said that nowadays, people would say, ‘Oh, my God, where’s the ACLU?’ “

But unlike the victimized females in “Pale Rider” and “Unforgiven,” Angelina Jolie’s character Christine Collins isn’t waiting for a grizzled gunslinger to drift into town and clean things up. Instead, she takes matters into her own hands.

“We all try to find lives where courage isn’t necessary, where nothing extraordinary will be required of you, and the only problem is, that isn’t possible,” Straczynski says. Even after bringing down the mayor, the police department and the criminal responsible for stealing kids off the streets, Collins continues to search for answers. “When you have an ambiguous ending, it requires the audience to participate on a moral level or an ethical level,” Straczynski says.

Collins may be “Changeling’s” central underdog, but the key victims are the children themselves. Nothing irks Eastwood’s sense of justice like the betrayal of innocence, and both “Changeling” and “Gran Torino” explore that idea in ways that have intrigued the director before.

“Mystic River” tells of a life destroyed by childhood sexual abuse. Though Brian Helgeland’s script is incredibly faithful to the original Dennis Lehane novel, Eastwood did allow for one small but critical change: The abductor seen at the beginning wears a church ring — an indictment of the scandals shaking Boston’s Catholic church at the time.

“I must say, I think crimes against children are the most deserving of whatever punishment can be meted out,” Eastwood says matter-of-factly. “I just have no tolerance for that.”

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