Starring: Clint Eastwood, Christopher Carley, Bee Vang and Ahney Her.
Distributor: Roadshow Films
Runtime: 116 mins. Reviewed in Jan 2009
Clint Eastwood almost parodies his stereotypical movie image in this comedy drama about a grumpy old man facing up to his bigotry. It’s far from Eastwood’s best work, but the 78-year-old is still a force to be reckoned with among directors with a strong commercial sense.
When we meet Walt Kowalski (Eastwood) he is in church, greeting mourners at the funeral of his beloved wife. But his thoughts are not elevated in prayer: he is too busy snarling inwardly at the bare midriff and piercings of his teenage granddaughter and the bad manners of his grandsons. The disgruntled Korean War veteran is not at all happy about the way the world has changed, particularly about the way the Detroit suburb in which he lives has been taken over by Asians, Hispanics and blacks.
He hates the fact that, whereas he worked all his life for the Ford Motor Company, his prize possession being the 1972 Gran Torino in his garage (which he lovingly polishes but never seems to drive), his ungrateful son makes a handsome living selling Japanese cars.
Next door lives an Asian family named Lor, with a teenage daughter, Sue (Ahney Her), and son, Thao (Bee Vang), and Walt reserves his finest vitriol for these “jabbering gooks”, “slopes” and “zipper heads”, as he variously describes them. The Lors are Hmongs (hill people of Laos), and Thao is being harassed by a Hmong street gang intent on making him join them. The gang casts envious eyes on the Gran Torino of Thao’s neighbour and plot to steal it.
When an argument with the gang in front of the house erupts into a fight, Walt emerges with his army rifle at the ready, telling them all to “get off my lawn”. When the grateful family brings him flowers and food to thank him for helping them, the scenario is set in motion for Walt to forget his prejudices and become a good neighbour and even involve himself, in the best Dirty Harry tradition, in Sue’s and Thao’s problems with the dangerous gang.
Walt also has issues with the church. His wife was the committed Catholic of that family, not Walt. He accuses the young parish priest, Father Janovich (Christopher Carley), of knowing nothing about life and death, despite his reassuring words at the funeral. The moment the priest reveals that the wife’s dying wish was for him to persuade Walt to make his confession, you know that Nick Schenk’s script will work its way round to Walt becoming a penitent, just as certainly as the Gran Torino will somehow figure in Walt’s rapprochement with the Lors.
The film, despite its contemporary setting and its frequent coarse language, resembles an old-fashioned western of which Eastwood was an able practitioner, even down to the final showdown on main street between Walt and the gang. It works in a klunky, self-indulgent sort of way but it is far from compelling and has several lame moments. Eastwood’s performance is pretty one-dimensional, consisting mainly of clenching his teeth, curling his upper lip and uttering guttural, vaguely animalistic growls. The motivation for the Hmong gang’s antipathy to Thao is pretty vague, and the acting of the young Asians borders on the amateurish.
I don’t know what non-Catholic filmgoers would make of Christopher Carley’s fresh-faced priest, but I put the performance, as written and played, almost in the pantomime category. It is such a cliché that Spencer Tracy and Pat O’Brien must be spinning in their graves.
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