At 78, perhaps the only actor in the history of American cinema to convincingly kick the butt of a guy 60 years his junior, the hard-headed, snarly mouthed Clint Eastwood of the 1970s comes growling back to life in “Gran Torino.” Centered on a cantankerous curmudgeon who can fairly be described as Archie Bunker fully loaded (with beer and guns), the actor-director’s second release of the season is his most stripped-down, unadorned picture in many a year, even as it continues his long preoccupation with race in American society. Highlighted by the star’s vastly entertaining performance, this funny, broad but ultimately serious-minded drama about an old-timer driven to put things right in his deteriorating neighborhood looks to be a big audience-pleaser with mainstream viewers of all ages.
In his first screen appearance since 2004’s “Million Dollar Baby,” Eastwood revives memories of some of his earlier working-class characters; Korean War vet Walt Kowalski suggests a version of what Dirty Harry might have been like at this age, and there are elements as well of the narrow-minded, authority-driven figures in “The Gauntlet” and “Heartbreak Ridge,” as well as those films’ humble settings and plain aesthetics.
His wife freshly in her grave and his two sons’ upscale families uncomfortable around him, Kowalski has impeccably maintained his modest suburban Detroit home while every other house nearby has gone to seed. A lifelong auto worker after his Army stint, Kowalski has seen his contemporaries die off or move on, replaced by immigrants and assorted ethnics he despises. His racist mutterings, which employ every imaginable epithet for Asians, are blunt and nasty, but Eastwood grunts them out in an over-the-top way that provokes laughs, and his targets are no less sparing of him.
Particularly irksome is the family next door. To Kowalski, they are generically Asian, but they are specifically part of the sizable local Hmong population, mountain folk from Laos, Thailand and elsewhere who sided with the U.S. during the Vietnam War and understandably fled when the Yanks pulled out of Southeast Asia. Residing in the rundown house are a granny, a mother and two teenagers, retiring boy Thao (Bee Vang) and more assertive girl Sue (Ahney Her).
Visitors often congregate at the home, and Kowalski imagines them eating dog (he has one) and pursuing other unwholesome activities. But the sole genuinely unsavory element is a bunch of Hmong gangbangers hot to recruit the leader’s cousin, Thao. “Get off my lawn,” Kowalski menacingly snarls when some commotion spills onto his property in what will no doubt become one of the film’s trademark lines, and the cagey coot makes it clear he’ll be gunning for the hot-rodding hoodlums if they bother him again.
The pivot in Nick Schenk’s lively, neatly balanced screenplay (which was allegedly not written with Eastwood in mind, although it’s a mystery who else could have played the lead) has the gangstas forcing Thao to prove himself by stealing Kowalski’s cherry 1972 Gran Torino. When the alert old soldier catches him at it, Thao’s tradition-minded family insists he work off his shame at the victim’s pleasure. Reluctantly at first, Kowalksi has him make repairs around the neighborhood, thereby initiating a quasi-father-son relationship between extremely unlikely prospects.
More melodramatically, Kowalski also becomes a protector of sorts to Sue, whom he rescues from some taunting black street kids in a scene that echoes previous scenes in Eastwood films in which the hero dares badass types to take him on. Beginning to take an interest in his young charges, Kowalski learns from Sue that, among Hmong kids in the U.S., “The girls go to college and the boys go to jail.” Once he spends more time with the siblings and sees their desire to raise themselves up, Kowalski admits that, “I have more in common with these gooks than with my own spoiled, rotten family.”
Thus is launched a character arc that will strike some as so ambitiously long as to seem far-fetched for such an old, mentally entrenched man. But Eastwood makes it appear plausible — as if, once Kowalski has seen the light, everything that comes afterward is clear, almost preordained. Religion hovers in the background; a very young priest (Christopher Carley), determined to fulfill the final request of Kowalski’s wife to get her husband to confess, keeps getting the door shut in his face, the old man feeling he knows a lot more about life and death than this green seminary product. Climax is heavier and more sobering than expected, but it’s quietly foreshadowed by narrative and character elements.
While “Gran Torino” is entirely of a piece with Eastwood’s other work, it also stands apart from his artful films of the past six years in its completely straightforward, unstudied style. To be sure, there are themes and understated points of view, most fundamentally about the need to get beyond racial and ethnic prejudice, the changing face of the nation and the future resting in the hands of today’s immigrants. In a way that clearly could not have been intended, Eastwood could be said to have inadvertently made the first film of the Obama era.
Eastwood has dealt very intelligently and matter-of-factly with race throughout his career — in “Bird,” “Unforgiven,” “Million Dollar Baby,” “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters From Iwo Jima,” among others — and in this respect, the key scene here is one in which Kowalski takes Thao to an Italian barber and, with the intention of making him “man up,” teaches him the relevant ethnic insults, which, in his world, everyone should be able to withstand and humorously throw back at the perpetrator. For the two older adults, it’s a game — a rite of passage that incorporates a healthy, if superficially abrasive, acknowledgment of their differences.
Eastwood’s initial vocal rasp moderates over time, just as his character softens toward the seeming aliens who surround him. There is probably no leading Hollywood actor with less ham in him than Eastwood — just compare him to Jack Nicholson or Al Pacino, for starters — but by his standards, this is a real barn-burner; grumbling under his breath or merely looking askance at the perceived lowlifes that litter his existence, Eastwood clearly relishes this role and conveys his delight to the audience, to great satisfaction all around.
Hmong roles were filled by nonpros and quite adequately so. A bit characterless at first, Vang ultimately comes into his own as a 16-year-old forced into life’s crossroads, while Her capably embodies a girl with more spirit than judgment. Carley plays right into his priest’s naivete, while John Carroll Lynch has fun as the old-school barber.
Shot over five weeks in Detroit’s Highland Park neighborhood, the pic is efficient and modest in all production departments. Editors Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach brought it in crisply at under two hours.