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USA 2008
Directed by
Clint Eastwood
115 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3 stars

Gran Torino

Synopsis: Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood),is a sourpuss who, following the death of his wife, lives alone. He doesn’t like much except a tidy home and sitting on his porch with his dog. He certainly does not like the Asians that have flooded into his neighbourhood. He doesn’t talk to the family next door but when their son, Thao (Bee Vang), tries to steal Walt's mint condition 1972 Gran Torino, he starts to discover that they’re not as bad as he thought they were.

The main problem with Gran Torino is evident from the opening scene in which we see grizzled, dyspeptic Walt Kowalski glaring at his grand-children who, with their skanky fashion statements and teen irreverence, satisfy all the old man’s scorn for the ill-behaved younger generation. We then cut to their parents, Walt’s middle-aged sons commenting on how their dad is a grumpy old bastard with no time for their kids who, after all, are just kids. Similar gratuitous verbal explication runs through most of the film, even to the point of having Walt talk to himself or to his dog in order to make sure that we have grasped the point of what has been made perfectly evident in visual terms. Gran Torino is essentially a morality play and neither Nick Schenk’s screenplay nor Eastwood’s direction is subtle about its agenda.

This is particularly so for the first half of the movie, in which scene is piled upon scene in order to establish the scenario of the crusty ex-Korean War vet embattled in a crumbling suburb that was once full of solid working class white American folk like himself but is now home to an assortment of "spooks" and "gooks", just a couple of terms with which he labels the "multi-racial" community . Whilst to some extent we can accept the typology of characters as it reflects Walt’s own highly compartmentalised world view, it is unnecessarily laboured.

Clearly the point of film, with which the second half is concerned, is how Walt does or does not come to terms with this alienated state-of-affairs, brought to a head by his relationship with his Asian next-door neighbours, Hmong people whose families fought with the Americans in Vietnam and have relocated to the USA. Here it is reasonably successful, albeit formulaic, in the path it takes as Walt forms an improbable friendship with feisty Sue (Ahney Her) and her more withdrawn brother, Thao (Bee Vang), both of whom can see beyond the ghetto mentality of their cousin and his thuggish mates. Walt’s racist persona turns out to be little more than an extension of his understanding of what it means to be a man, which is basically to cuss and insult everyone. At heart, according to this film he’s a stand-up guy. Eastwood, still a commanding screen presence at 78, plays him like Det. Harry Callahan in retirement and at times his portrayal borders on the comedic, including a bulldog snarl on which the camera closes as Walt pops a few blood vessels. It is fortunate that Eastwood injects humour into the proceedings as this helps to leaven the film’s didactic tendency. Walt has quite a cutting wit and the scene in which he tutors Thao in man-talk and then takes him to apply for a job on a construction site is particularly amusing.

The climactic ending of Gran Torino is quite startling. Whilst this carries a big enough wallop to lift what precedes it above the predictable at least,  an approach which had built to this resolution dramatically and psychologically instead of whipping it out from behind a curtain of conventions would have been more satisfying. Its sentimental coda, which returns us once again to the reassuring norms of  cinematic fiction suggests however that this was never an option. Eastwood, despite his atypical interest in the tragic aspects of existence remains firmly embedded within the norms of mainstream American film.




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