Like good wine that gains in character as it ages, Clint Eastwood is a cinematic presence that just keeps getting better. His directorial ventures especially, tell great stories, right from his debut Unforgiven (1992) to Gran Torino (2008).
Here, in his 78th year, Eastwood plays old-school Walt Kowalski, a Korean War veteran and former Ford factory worker now living in a run-down Detroit suburb. When we first meet Walt at his wife’s funeral, he seems full of impotent rage at everything: his selfish children, his annoying grandchildren, the goody two-shoes priest.
It’s easy to recognise in Walt, the laconic “man with no name” — or even tough-shooting Dirty Harry — grown old. Gran Torino scripted by Nick Schenck is not a subtle film: it makes no bones about dealing with such time-honoured dramatic themes as justice or redemption. But then, Gran Torino is no delicate Pinot, it is a full-bodied Cabernet.
To begin with, Walt isn’t a particularly palatable vintage. Out of sync with the changing world, he sits alone on the front porch with his dog, an ubiquitous six-pack, and the American flag. Apart from religion and impertinent youngsters, his pet peeve is how the once-white neighbourhood is being taken over by African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians, whom he derogatively refers to as gooks and chinks.
His irritation mounts when his new next-door neighbours turn out to be Hmongs (mountain folk from Laos, Vietnam and Thailand), a fatherless family that includes shy Thao Vang Lor (Bee Vang), and his spunky sister Sue (Ahney Her).
Though these kids want no part of the vicious neighbourhood gangs, the teenage boy is bullied into trying to steal Walt’s prized 1972 Gran Torino —and is caught. However, when the gang arrives to punish Thao for failing his “gang initiation rite”, Walt’s sense of fairplay wins. He brandishes an old army rifle, saves the kid and gains the family’s gratitude. “I just wanted the jabbering gooks off my lawn,” growls Walt, but to no avail — he gets daily gifts of food, as well as the services of young Thao, as punishment for trying to steal the car in the first place.
Inevitably — but not in a ham-handed way — Walt gets increasingly involved in the lives of his unwanted if protégée and his sister. His rapport with Sue introduces a nice vein of humour into their increasingly darker world, where violence begets more violence. Perhaps, Walt sees in the pair what he would have hoped for in his own grandchildren.
In the beginning of the film Walt’s granddaughter, who hates the old man, nevertheless, expresses a desire to inherit the Gran Torino. As the story progresses, the big car becomes a big metaphor for times in which things of beauty mattered, as did such old-fashioned values as politeness, justice and kindness. There has been some talk about other old things coming to an end with Gran Torino, and Eastwood finally hanging up his acting boots. If so, we’d miss those boots — they’re too grand to be filled in a hurry.
Director: Clint Eastwood
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Christopher Carley, Bee Vang, Ahney Her
Storyline: The unexpected friendship between a tough old Korean War veteran and his timid Hmong neighbour leads to unexpected consequences
Bottomline: A robust Eastwood vintage with many grace notes