Film Reviews: Wednesday, January 07, 2009
Gran Torino
Starring Clint Eastwood, Bee Vang, and Ahney Her. Directed by Clint Eastwood. Written by Nick Schenk. Rated R.
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Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino is a relic that looks better than it runs.


First of all, Gran Torino is not a movie about auto racing. It’s Clint Eastwood’s latest drama, which has earned some glowing reviews from a few movie critics who think Eastwood can do no wrong. They’re the same people who showered praise on stuff like Letters From Iwo Jima, mistaking the deliberate pace of his films for profundity and seeing the good intentions of his old-school humanism while overlooking the slapdash execution of his editing. It’s those qualities that have resulted in this movie being seriously overrated.
The director stars as Walt Kowalski, a mean, recently widowed Korean War veteran and retired autoworker. Already distant from his two prosperous and ungrateful middle-aged sons (Brian Haley and Brian Howe), he has little to do except look out at his Detroit neighborhood from his front porch and bemoan the “spooks” and the “gooks” moving in and pushing out the white people like himself. His attitude isn’t improved when he catches Thao Vang Lor (Bee Vang), the nerdy Asian boy who lives next door to him, trying to steal his 1972 Ford Gran Torino as part of a gang initiation. Later on, though, that same gang messes with Thao and his older sister, Sue (Ahney Her), until the violence spreads onto Walt’s property, at which point Walt intervenes with the standard old man’s “Get off my lawn!” threat, only backed up with a shotgun. His grateful neighbors eventually chip away at Walt’s exterior by giving him delicious ethnic food, showing him the ins and outs of Hmong culture (the hill-dwelling people of Cambodia and Laos), and giving him an appreciation for studious and hard-working Asians who don’t go around flaunting tattoos and automatic firearms.
As someone who falls into the latter group, I’m fine with that, but correct racial attitudes are nothing compared to the other problems with the way the main character is conceived and played. Walt’s frequent streams of racial invective should carry a poisonous sting, but Eastwood in his late 70s is simply too mellow a performer to give the material the toxicity that it needs. (The Eastwood of Unforgiven 16 years ago might have been able to pull it off.) Also, there are a surprising number of scenes in which Walt’s outdated thinking is played for laughs at his expense. It’s commendable that Eastwood would submit himself to occasionally playing the stooge, but it’s not something that he’s used to, and the slow burns he does off his sons or the callow local priest (Christopher Carley) aren’t funny. Finding the right balance between the character’s hateful side and his comic side would be difficult for any actor or director, and Eastwood can’t do it from either end.
The film ends with Walt finding a uniquely passive-aggressive way of putting Thao’s gangsta enemies away, but the ingenuity of this is wasted by Eastwood’s indifferent pacing. The inexperience of the first-time actors around him doesn’t help, either. More than anything, though, the mishandling of the main character is the reason Gran Torino’s lesson of tolerance feels so pat and unmoving. Eastwood-directed movies can be powerful stuff when they’re done well. This isn’t done well.

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