Clint Eastwood's GRAN TORINO transforms Capone into a Grumpy Old Man!!!
Published at: Dec. 19, 2008, 9:10 a.m. CST by Capone
Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.
In the end Clint Eastwood's latest directed effort (his second of the year, in case you're counting, after CHANGELING) will be remembered as a minor effort from one of the greatest living American directors. But I can also see GRAN TORINO being a real crowd pleaser, as Clint returns to film acting in a sort of Grumpy Old Bigot Man role that I'm 75 percent sure is supposed to be funny even though the film dives into some fairly serious shit concerning gang violence, rape and the healing power of racism. But in the end, I can't really recommend the film because, outside of Eastwood's performance, the acting in the film is god-awful — strictly amateur hour, after-school special level stuff that I could never get into or get past.
Eastwood plays Korean War vet Walt Kowalski, whose wife has just died. The film opens at her funeral service in the local church, and we immediately see that Walt has little patience for other human beings, even those in his own family. He literally snarls at anyone who pisses him off...which is pretty much everyone. He's mad at two people whispering and smiling during the service; he's mad at the way his granddaughter dresses for the event; he's mad at the young priest (Christopher Carley) who was friendly with Walt's wife and who promised her before she died that he'd check in on Walt to make sure the crotchety bastard was doing alright. Every offer for help, every attempt by his grown kids to move Walt out of the terrible neighborhood where he lives (he is apparently the only white guy still living in the crime-ridden area) is met with something that goes beyond resistance. Walt hates the world and the world responds in kind.
Knowing that Eastwood has previously revisiting types of roles he's played in the past, it was easy to see GRAN TORINO (named for the mint 1972 car that Walt owns and displays proudly for all of the thieving neighbor kids to see) as an update on Eastwood's "Dirty" Harry Calahan role. Only this version of Harry got older than he ever thought he'd live and the streets that he fought so hard to keep clean ended up consuming him and his way of life. What is left is a man bitter at having fought so hard in Korea against the "gooks" only to have them (or a version of them in his eyes) take over the street that he and his wife loved so much. Walt doesn't hesitate to protect himself and his little home with guns galore. He is literally the old man who spouts, "You kids get offa my lawn."
Despite every effort, Walt become friendly with Sue (Ahney Her), the teen girl who lives next door, whom he rescues from being harassed by a group of black gang members (Walt does love to pull out that old chestnut "spook"). Eventually Walk even is somewhat accepted by the girl's family, who are Hmong, an Asian culture from the mountains of China and Southeast Asia who came to America when the dirty commies took over Laos in the mid-'70s (look at me doing my research!). These distinctions between Asian people never really occurred or mattered to Walt (he never even bothers to pronounce "Hmong" correctly), but they invite him to a party, give him beer, and feed him good food, so he enjoys their company.
One day, Sue's brother Thao, a geeky kid who is being tempted by the Hmong street gangs to join their ranks, attempts to steal Walt's Gran Torino. Walt nearly blows the kid's head off. Thao's family is so ashamed of his actions, they essentially offer him to Walt as a servant until he has paid his debt to society in Walt's eyes. Naturally, this master-slave relationship becomes more like mentoring as Walt and the kid become buddies, and Walt teaches the awkward kid not only valuable skills that might help him get a job one day, but also life lessons on how to talk to girls and how to be more of a man. A couple of very funny scenes between Walt, his barber (John Carroll Lynch) and Thao are one of the few genuine highlights of GRAN TORINO, as Walt attempts to show Thao how real men talk to each other.
As I mentioned, what I could never get past with this movie was just how bad most of the acting is. Eastwood seems to be struggling a lot of the time to pull his cast up to his level, and they never really get there. And while there are some extremely funny moments in GRAN TORINO, the abrupt tonal shift when his encounters with the Hmong gang intensify feel forced and pedestrian. Make no mistake, as much as this tale of a lovable racist attempts to be life affirming, this one is R rated for language and some pretty brutal violence.
Every once in a while, I can sit through a film, laugh at its jokes, be impressed with some aspects of it, but ultimately it just never clicks for me. That's GRAN TORINO in a nutshell. I will never complain about seeing Eastwood onscreen, because it's impossible for me not to find him compelling in every way as an actor. I know Eastwood has at least one more movie left in him as a director (THE HUMAN FACTOR with Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon, set for release next year), but if this is the last film he ever acts in, that would be a true shame. I'd hate to see him end his acting career with a whimper rather than a roar. GRAN TORINO falls short of the standard Eastwood has set for himself and us over the years, and that's a shame.