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Tired Formula Gives Gran Torino Some Mileage

  • Christian Hamaker Contributing Writer
  • 2008 25 Dec
Tired Formula Gives <i>Gran Torino</i> Some Mileage

DVD Release Date:  June 9, 2009
Theatrical Release Date:  December 25, 2008
Rating:  R (for language throughout, and some violence)
Genre:  Drama
Run Time:  116 min.
Director:  Clint Eastwood
Actors:  Clint Eastwood, Christopher Carley, Bee Vang, Ahney Her, Brian Haley, Geraldine Hughes, Dreama Walker, Brian Howe, John Carroll Lynch

The year 2008 has been both cruel and kind to Clint Eastwood. First, the filmmaker directed a highly touted drama, Changeling, that was selected to compete at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival.

With a much talked about lead performance from Angelina Jolie, the film carried significant Oscar buzz right up to its domestic release in October. Once the film was more widely seen, however, Oscar talk cooled. Many critics found the film too long and Jolie’s performance too one-note.

Now Eastwood has released Gran Torino, a film that he not only directed, but one in which he also stars. It’s Eastwood’s first time in front of the camera since he directed himself in 2004’s Million Dollar Baby, and like that film, Gran Torino arrives after many preordained Oscar contenders already have opened. Has Eastwood managed to do with Gran Torino what he did with Million Dollar Baby—deliver a dark-horse awards contender that will floor audiences and reap film-industry swag?

That’s tough to say. Eastwood’s performance as Walt Kowalski in Gran Torino is the film’s highlight—an update on the tough-guy persona Eastwood perfected as “Dirty Harry” Callahan, or as Will Munny in Unforgiven. He clings to his older ways in a neighborhood that has changed significantly. Polish neighbors have been replaced by Asian immigrants, whom Kowalski, a Korean War vet, disdains. He has some choice labels for people of Asian descent, and he voices them, repeatedly.

His next-door neighbor, Thao (Bee Vang), is harassed by a male cousin who demands that he join his gang. Thao’s lack of interest in the gang results in a violent confrontation that spills onto Kowalski’s lawn, leading the grizzled vet to load his shotgun and aim it at the quarreling young men. “Get off my lawn,” he declares, fearlessly.

Accused of bringing dishonor on his family, Thao is forced to make amends by offering to help Kowalski on household jobs. The older man initially resists, but ends up putting Thao to work repairing some of his neighbors’ homes and yards. Walt slowly learns to accept Thao’s help, while Thao learns a thing or two about home repair. But the biggest transformation is Kowalski’s, who is forced to interact with his grateful Asian neighbors as they bring him meal after meal. His main point of contact is Thao’s sister, Sue (Ahney Her), who explains her family’s customs and helps the prejudiced Kowalski recognize their shared humanity.

The scenes between Eastwood and Her are among the film’s best, but even those have a too-familiar ring to them. We know where this story is going long before it gets there, and while that’s no shame, it doesn’t exactly make for a gripping drama. More concerning are the film’s outward nods toward Kowalski’s struggles with his Catholic faith. Kowalski is no saint, and he knows it. Like Frankie Dunn in Million Dollar Baby, his character loves to challenge religious authority figures but will eventually deal with his dormant Catholic faith.

This religious dialogue in the film is somewhat stimulating, but ultimately disappointing. The young priest stands up to Kowalski’s challenges about his life experience, but comes to acknowledge that some of Kowalski’s charges against him are true. That’s appropriately humble. Less so inspiring is a sermon the priest gives in which he indicates that he learned more from Kowalski than Kowalski learned from him. Did Kowalski’s behavioral transformation go deep enough to touch the soul? It’s debatable. Eastwood seems to be more interested in posing—in one case, quite literally—as a Christ figure in Gran Torino, presenting themes of regret and redemption in large letters. However, the religious connections are forced and heavy-handed, unlike the far superior Changeling, where the Christian themes of justice and hope, although outwardly embodied by a man of the cloth, were delivered with more grace and power.

Weaker still is the story of Thao, Kowalski’s harassed neighbor. The young man broods effectively, but every time he opens his mouth, another stilted line ushers forth. Vang simply isn’t a very good actor, and his performance hurts the film. Also, the repeated attempts by his cousin to make Thao join his gang are poorly explained. We know Thao feels trapped and that his friends feel disrespected by him, but we don’t understand why they keep insisting, to the point of violence, that he join their gang.

Nevertheless, Gran Torino works fairly well as mainstream entertainment. It gives audiences a loveable rascal in Eastwood’s character, and allows a flawed, racist man to be the instrument of change in the life of a young man in need of direction. It also shows the lengths to which a man might go for his friends—a theme that, again, is more artfully presented in Changeling, but
which is not without power here.

Readers are cautioned that the racial epithets and language in Gran Torino are distasteful, and that the movie, even with its explicit religious angle, feels warmed over. There’s not much beyond Eastwood’s enjoyable performance to recommend the film, but watching the actor give one more memorable performance may be enough for Eastwood’s fans.

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  • Smoking/Drinking:  Drinking; a character has a Pabst Blue Ribbon beer sign; smoking.
  • Language/Profanity:  A boy makes a joke about body parts as he kneels and crosses himself; offensive racial terms used repeatedly; foul language; Lord’s name taken in vain, even by a priest; verbal descriptions of acts of war violence; derogatory names for females.
  • Sex/Nudity:  A boy makes sexual thrusting motions toward someone else.
  • Violence:  Gang members taunt a young man and try to force him to join them; a man trains a shotgun on a thief, and the gun accidentally goes off; a man aims his gun at gang members on his property; a man beats a much younger gang member; a drive-by shooting; a woman is shown after enduring a severe beating; a man punches cabinets and glass, inflicting cuts.
  • Faith:  A character is challenged to go to confession, and responds, “I confess that I never really cared for church”; an Asian birth ritual involves commands aimed at the spirit of the newborn child; a priest is labeled a 27-year-old virgin who likes to hold the hands of “old ladies” and “promise them eternity”; a priest says he knows about forgiveness and has seen men confess their sins; Hmong people are said to believe that the soul resides in the head; a shaman “reads” a character’s inner thoughts; a man is called a “white devil”; a man goes to confession and later says a Hail Mary; a shooting victim is posed with his arms spread wide, resembling the appearance of Jesus on the cross.