Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) is an unpleasant man, and why shouldn't he be? He fought in Korea, worked the assembly line for Ford, and raised two sons in his all American home in a midwest suburb. Things have changed though, his all American home is now in the middle of a rundown minority neighborhood, his wife has died, one son is trying to put him in a retirement community, while the other is pretty much absent. He's also coughing up blood on a regular basis, and being hounded by a priest who promised his late wife that he would make Walt go to confession. As if the fact the world has moved on without him isn't enough, the kid next door tries to steal his 1972 Gran Torino as part of a gang initiation.
The Gran Torino itself is not really the focus of the movie, but it is the catalyst for everything that happens. If Thao (Bee Vang), a.k.a Toad, hadn't tried to steal Walt's car, he never would have ended up having to work for Walt to restore his family's honor. It is during this period of indentured servitude that Walt comes to like Thao Lor and his sister Sue (Ahney Her), and it is a result of this that allows Walt to regain some of his humanity and make a father/son connection with them that he never made with his own sons.
I suspected I would enjoy this movie once I saw him in the trailer pointing a rifle at a group of gangbangers and growling “Get off my lawn!” like a stereotypical old man, and I was not disappointed, Walt seems like he would be an unlikable man; he throws around racial epithets like most people throw around nouns, he smokes unfiltered cigarettes, chews tobacco, and sits on his front porch drinking can after can of Pabst Blue Ribbon glaring at everything and everyone all the while. For all of that though, I could not help but like him.
What surprised me about this film is that it was not at all what I expected. I was expecting something along the lines of “Death Wish”, with Eastwood outsmarting and slaughtering the gangs, but what I got was a movie that had me, and much of the theater, laughing out loud for the first three quarters of the film. It really isn't until about the ninety minute mark that the movie suddenly takes a dark and violent turn that leads to the film's conclusion.
As I watched this movie, I couldn't help but draw comparison's to 1993's “Falling Down”, another dark comedy about a man who no longer understands the world he lives in. This film is maybe not quite as dark as “Faling Down”, at least not until the end, but it still had a lot of that feel to it to me, especially the ending which packs quite an emotional punch.
If you are sensitive to racism, you may want to avoid this film, as not only does Walt constantly refer to people in offensive terms, be it the black thugs he catches harassing Sue, his equally offensive barber Martin (John Carroll Lynch), or the Lors themselves, but the film is populated by stereotypes. Walt is your stereotype old man who hates the world, the Asian and Hispanic gangmembers look like they might have stepped out of a “Saints Row” video game, then there's the young idealistic priest, and the Lor family who are stereotypically obsessed with honor and tradition. In a lesser film this might come across as sloppy, or even lazy, but Gran Torino makes it work thanks to good writing and talented acting.
The movie is not perfect. In some scenes, especially early in the film, Sue and Thao frequently come across like they are just reciting their lines, as if I was watching a very high budget production from a high school drama club. I found Sue in particular to be very distracting at first, but once the actors spend more time on screen, it seems like they become more comfortable in their roles. My knowledge of the behaviour of members of the Hmong community is extremely limited though, so this may actually be an accurate portrayal of how someone from that community would react in an uncomfortable situation (all of the scenes that had this issue for me featured the characters in awkward moments).
Another issue is the very end of the movie; this is a pretty long movie, clocking in at 116 minutes, but the last probably ten minutes of the film feel like they are trying to cram in about twenty minutes worth of content. This does little to really hurt the movie overall, but it is noticable.
Despite being more “Million Dollar Baby” than “Dirty Harry”, this film is a must see for anyone who is an Eastwood fan. Eastwood creates a perfect image of what someone like Harry Callahan would become if they settled down in the suburbs and grew old. From the first snarled comment during his wife's funeral all the way through to the climax of the film, he is an absolute joy to watch.
“Gran Torino” is a very adult film; there is no actual nudity, but there is enough adult language to make your average rapper blush, some very adult themes, and a few scenes of graphic violence. You'll probably want to leave the kids home for this, but if you want to see a really quality film that will make you laugh, and may even make you cry, you cannot go wrong with “Gran Torino” now that it has been released nationwide. I suspect we'll be hearing about this film a lot during awards season.