Clint Eastwood’s latest movie “Gran Torino” could have easily been called “Growl, Scowl and Two Smoking Barrels.” The longtime gunslinger stars as Korea war veteran Walt Kowalski, whose racism, post-traumatic guilt complex and extreme disgruntlement with the world at large have successfully alienated him from both his own sons and his Hmong neighbors. The film traces his transformation from a trash-talking old bigot into an unlikely yet dedicated mentor to his youngest neighbor, a teenager named Thao (Bee Vang) who is being pressured by his outlaw cousin into joining the neighborhood gang. Thus the personal drama is set within a distinctly modern American context, complete with gang wars, racial tensions and senseless violence, making the film an affecting, albeit small-scale, attempt at exploring the issues of tolerance, understanding and redemption.
The film’s prized possession is Clint Eastwood’s performance, which is so idiosyncratic and fascinating to watch that it suffices to detract attention from the glaring shortcomings of the screenplay. Mr. Eastwood’s facial expressions alone could’ve easily done away with half the dialogue, as it is mainly through his astounding array of glares, frowns and disgusted grimaces that the image of the perpetually grumpy, hostile old man is fleshed out and comes to dominate the screen. When one adds to that his equally expressive growls and snarls, his striking modern cowboy act with the Korea war gun, and his deadpan delivery of Walt’s excessively foul language, the result is yet another memorable character courtesy of one of Hollywood’s living icons.
Even if the director himself steals the show, the rest of his cast does stand their ground. Bee Vang’s performance, while not particularly inspiring, is adequate to the role. He is appropriately shy, inept and asocial in the beginning, allowing Thao’s coming-of-age tale to be played out by the book, with the underdog successfully “manning up” by the end credits. Ahney Her, as his older sister Sue, adeptly portrays the friendly, slightly awkward, yet persistent girl next door whose constant attempts to get through Walt’s self-erected emotional barricade make for some of the film’s most natural, non-melodramatic scenes.
And melodrama is quite abundant in this movie. Even at a first glance, it is easy to recognize that “Gran Torino” is more loaded than all its gang members taken together. Racism, alienation and Walt’s postwar guilt issues are only three of the heavy-handed themes that the film touches upon. Even had it stopped here, it would have already bit off more than it could chew, since it lacks the scope necessary to make its message not simply poignant, but also truly powerful. While it would have been possible to avoid corniness with a less predictable script, screenwriter Nick Schenk chose the way more traveled, succumbing to convention. As a result, while the film is engaging, it is by no means a cinematic revelation and will probably be remembered as nothing more than one among many dramas on the same subject.
Even so, it is still worth seeing, if not for other reasons then just for the pure joy of Clint Eastwood’s vigilante grandpa attitude. Dirty Harry may be retired, but he’s still badass.