Archive Review: Gran Torino (2008) – 3.5/5 Stars

“Gran Torino” has to be the only good politically incorrect film to ever be made. Clint Eastwood’s character Walt Kowalski is a crotchety and ignorant old Korean War vet whose vocabulary is a thesaurus of racial slurs. He’s basically a racist Dirty Harry in his 70s-80s and the script hits us over the head with his unabashed insensitivity and cold-heartedness to the point where “Gran Torino” is half comedy. But then, as only a masterful director such as Eastwood can do, “Gran Torino” becomes one of those classic unlikely relationship films between a widower and his teenage Asian-American neighbor. It’s a film with a great premise but an off-kilter script that Eastwood salvages into something poetic.

There’s no question Eastwood liked the potential he saw in rookie writers Nick Schenk and David Johannson’s script for himself as an actor and a director. It is the perfect cap to his illustrious acting career, combining his great character acting in westerns and the Dirty Harry movies with his more dramatic pictures of the last 15 or so years. It’s an unrefined story, but contains a lot of great storytelling potential.

Taking place in an old Michigan neighborhood that has since become overrun with Hmong (Southeast Asian) immigrants, “Gran Torino” is about the widower Walt and the teenage Hmong boy next door, an introvert who is peer pressured to join his cousin’s gang. When the boy, Thao, tries to steal Walt’s 1972 Gran Torino and Walt unintentionally saves Thao from gang trouble, Walt, Thao and Thao’s family become entangled, more so than Walt would like.

Walt sort of mentors Thao in an inappropriate and grouchy way and he boldly confronts various gangs posing dangers to Thao and his sister Sue despite doing something each time to counter his act of “kindness” with a demeaning or ignorant comment. The script meddles with stereotypes a bit too much in this way, trying to use other characters’ dialogue to battle the extremism of Eastwood’s character. Sue, for example, gets hit on in one scene by three black guys who trash her white friend who calls them “bros” and to defend herself she starts calling them out on their stereotypical “pick on the Asian girl” behavior. Basically, “Gran Torino” gets a bit in over its head in trying to present an accurate racial palette.

At the same time, diversity themes are part of the film’s strength. No major film has focused on Hmong Americans before, and considering the prejudices Walt brings with him from the Korean War, they’re an ideal focus for the story. The major differences between Walt’s lifestyle and theirs is part of what keeps “Gran Torino” interesting.

There’s no question that Eastwood know what he’s doing. He has an uncanny ability to keep the audience guessing what’s coming but the story never goes where you expect it to. It’s both engaging and surprising and his techniques speak as much truth if not more than the script.

The only other thing hurting “Gran Torino” is its lack of an experienced supporting cast. Although Hmong actors needed to play Hmong characters, Walt’s sons and the Catholic priest that pesters Walt to confess his sins are weak. Eastwood dominates the scenes he’s in and if he’s not in a scene, the film lacks power and authenticity. Walt might be a flagrant hater of all peoples not white and American, but he’s at least convincingly so where the other actors aren’t.

So despite its twisted and questionably inadvertent sense of humor, “Gran Torino” is a triumph of veteran film-making and a dominating lead actor over amateur storytelling and a weak overall cast. The film takes refuge in its quiet but lovable teenage protagonist and the relationship he develops with a foul-mouthed old man and how both help each other in the end. We expect Walt to turn into a softie when he takes Thao under his wing, but he never caves completely, and that’s admirable, even if it would be nice for him to take a break from the pejorative comments so that the laughs would be a bit more guilt-free.

3.5/5 Stars

“Gran Torino” (2008)
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Written by: Nick Schenk, David Johannson
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Bee Vang, Christopher Carley


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