Retired and recently widowed, Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) kills time by drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon on his porch, groaning and giving the neighbors mean looks. For you see, he’s one of the only white guys left in the Detroit ghetto he calls home, which is now heavily populated by Hmong immigrants, whom the unashamedly bigoted old man doesn’t shy away from calling barbarians, chinks, zipperheads, gooks, swamp rats, eggrolls..
…which, judging from the reactions of people in the audience when I saw the film, is supposed to be funny. Really? Racism is supposed to make us laugh now? Granted, Walt’s raging contempt is not directed solely at Asians (and Blacks, and Latinos, etc.), but also at his own kids and grandkids. He basically hates everybody, save for his dead wife, his dog and his car, a 1972 Gran Torino in perfect condition.
That vintage beauty actually plays a key role in the film. When, under the pressure of a local street gang, Hmong teenager Thao (Bee Vang) attempts to steal Walt’s prized muscle car, the Korean War veteran nearly shoots the kid’s head off… But a bit later on, he finds himself driven to protect Thao from the gang-bangers harassing him and, eventually, he actually takes the boy under his wing, teaching him how to fix shit up, letting him borrow his tools, helping him get a construction job…
That middle part of “Gran Torino” is actually not too bad, even though Eastwood’s character remains a rather one-note caricature, the storytelling lacks subtlety, the dialogue is often hammy, scenes often go on too long or end abruptly, and first-time thespian Bee Vang’s performance is shaky. Still, the bonding between Walt and Thao works for the most part.
Alas, when the cartoonish gang-bangers return, the picture truly goes off the rails, as it grows increasingly excessive and melodramatic… And don’t get me started on the Christian allegory!
In short, Eastwood’s latest is flawed at best, managing to make “Crash” look like “Do the Right Thing”. Then why are some critics praising it? Are they that convinced that the one-time Dirty Harry and Man with No Name can do no wrong? I love Eastwood’s badass on-screen persona as much as the next guy and he’s certainly a gifted filmmaker, but that doesn’t mean that he’ll hit a homerun like “Unforgiven” every time at bat. See, I get the feeling that if Joel Schumacher had directed “Gran Torino” (which he kinda has already, e.g. “Falling Down”), there might still be people enjoying it as the B-movie that it is, but no one would be calling it a great film.