Review: 'Gran Torino'

Eastwood gives Dirty Harry a fresh turn in this tale of a racist retiree who reluctantly befriends and defends his immigrant neighbors.

By , Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Clint Eastwood stars in 'Gran Torino,'
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As Korean war vet Walt Kowalski in "Gran Torino," Clint Eastwood seems to be playing a crotchety Dirty Harry.

I never took Harry Callahan seriously, although, in a guilty-pleasure kind of way, I greatly enjoyed his manginess. Harry was Eastwood's avatar of a righteous lawman swamped by society's scum (i.e., hippies, lefties, feminists, and any wacko combo therein). He existed in a perpetual state of slow burn punctuated by gunplay and kabooms.

In "Gran Torino," which Eastwood also directed, Walt is a recently widowed Detroit auto worker whose fuse is as short as Harry's. He can't stand his bickering children and spoiled grandchildren. Well stocked with beer but still in fighting trim, he spends quality time on his porch bemoaning the influx of Asian immigrants into his blue-collar neighborhood, particularly the Hmong family next door. Spewing racial epithets under his breath, often over his breath, too, Walt is a snarly Scrooge, which should be a tip-off that redemption is on the way. (Walt's intermittent bouts of coughing up blood are a blatant tip-off that mortality is also en route.)

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"Get off my lawn!" is Walt's battle cry, which may explain why his lawn is as immaculate as his mouth is foul. Chief target of his wrath are the local Hmong gangbangers who are trying to recruit teenage Thao (Bee Vang), who lives next door with his old-school mother, grandmother, and plucky sister Sue (Ahney Her).

One of the nicer things Walt calls Thao is "Toad." When the boy, too meek to be gang material, flubs a gang initiation by attempting to steal Walt's mint-condition '72 Gran Torino, Thao's family makes amends by requiring him to do Walt's chores. Soon enough, Walt feels closer to this kid than to his own brood, and Sue, who has Walt's number, wears down his gruffness. Can the Ghost of Christmas Past be far behind?

This is Eastwood's first acting job since "Million Dollar Baby," and his range, like his raspiness, is fairly one-note. As an actor, he draws on the ample affection he has built up with audiences of all stripes over the years. He has never won an Oscar for his emoting, but notwithstanding the awards hype, his performance here is closer to iconography than to acting. This has always been true of Eastwood, just as it was with John Wayne (who nevertheless won the Best Actor Oscar for "True Grit").

Because the movie takes a not uncharacteristically Eastwoodian swerve into seriousness near the end, "Gran Torino" could almost be taken as his swan song, except that, at 78, Eastwood shows no signs of letting up. (It's his sixth film as a director in five years, and, coming after the disappointing "Changeling," his second in 2008.)

This is among his lesser recent movies, which doesn't diminish its likability. In fact, it's pleasing to see Eastwood working the middle of the emotional register for a change. Undoubtedly "Gran Torino" was conceived by screenwriter Nick Schenk with Eastwood in mind. It asks us to see Walt as both himself and as a compendium of Eastwood's greatest hits – not only Dirty Harry but the boxing coach in "Million Dollar Baby," the convict in "Escape From Alcatraz," the secret service agent in "In the Line of Fire" (these last two are his best career acting jobs) – and just about everybody else he's ever portrayed.

This deification would be obnoxious but for the fact that Eastwood seems to carry his legend rather lightly. Perhaps he recognizes that, especially in America, especially in Hollywood, if you stay in the saddle long enough you become an icon whether you want to be one or not. As an actor and, so far as one can tell, as himself, Eastwood seems bemused by his megastature. Maybe his snarls were always harmless, but they certainly are now. He's mellowed. He doesn't want us to stay off his lawn. Grade: B (Rated R for language throughout and some violence.)

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