“Ever notice how you come across somebody once in a while that you shouldn’t have messed with? That’s me.” That’s scowling, growling Walt Kowalski.
He’s a retired Detroit autoworker. He’s a Korean war veteran. And he’s Clint Eastwood’s first big-screen role since Million Dollar Baby. But really? He’s The Man With No Name. He’s Dirty Harry. He’s William Munny. He is Clint Eastwood.
Named after the 1972 car that Walt built himself on the now-defunct Ford factory line - it sits on his driveway like a gleaming symbol of the past - Gran Torino is a fully fuelled vehicle for its star and director to deliver a 10-gun salute to every badass he’s ever played.
Big veiny arms. Skin you could make a satchel out of. Teak-tough hands that could crush your skull like a grape. Clint Eastwood is 78. They don’t make men like they used to. And, like so many of the men Clint’s played in six decades on screen, Walt is a man from a bygone era.
Sitting on his porch with a beer and a dog, guarding his homestead like an Old West frontiersman, Walt is annoyed by everything and everyone... His two doughy, middle-aged sons driving around in Japanese cars.
Their wives trying to convince him about the benefits of going into a retirement home. His brainless, self-absorbed teenage granddaughter obliviously texting her way through his wife’s funeral.
But mostly, it’s the Asian family who live next door. The Hmong are Laotian immigrants who fought on the US side in Vietnam.
To Walt, they’re the same “jabbering gooks” he killed in Korea. Yes, Walt is a spectacularly unapologetic bigot. He plain doesn’t like “zipperheads”, “slopes” or “chinks”.
But then, he doesn’t like anybody. And it’s incredibly funny. “Get... Off... My... Lawn!” he snarls, branding his old M1 rifle as young thugs break one of his garden gnomes. Brilliant.
“We used to stack fucks like you five-high in Korea and use you for sandbags,” he rumbles, shoving the barrel into
a gangbanger’s nose. Superb. “I’ll blow a hole in your face and sleep like a baby.” Fantastic!
Believe it or not, as Walt becomes a reluctant - and unexpected - neighbourhood hero by saving the family next door from local gangsters, Gran Torino isn’t actually the comedy-racism film of the year.
Well, OK, maybe it is that too. But mostly, it’s a generic, enjoyable drama about Walt’s grudging, growing friendship with quiet, fatherless Hmong boy Thao (Bee Vang), incessantly badgered by his cousin’s gang to join them, and his sassy teenage sister Sue (Ahney Her), herself a victim of harassment on Detroit’s very mean streets.
As storylines go, this is older and craggier than even Clint himself. The children thaw out the racist’s heart. The old man discovers he really likes Asian food. Aww...
Taking a tender but over-obvious tilt at racial prejudice, debut screenwriter Nick Schenk’s script etches broad characters, brims with heavy-handed drama and spells out what it doesn’t need to.
At one point, Walt even stares into the mirror to ponder, “I’ve got more in common with these gooks than I do with my own family.” Despite his Korean war psyche-scars, he’s a caricature searching for depth that isn’t there.
So why does Gran Torino never slide into self-parody? Because bizarrely, it’s also disarmingly earnest, exploring the themes of vengeance, violence, hollow heroism and past that have fascinated Clint for decades.
Because Eastwood himself is irresistible and immense in every frame. Because even the self-serious final showdown in which Walt kills his demons and finds salvation feels like a symbolic farewell to the American icon’s urban-avenger persona.
Sure, this is no legacy-capper like Unforgiven. It won’t add to his two Oscars for Best Director. And it’s riddled with
- and let down by - some of the creakiest, most awkward acting you’ll ever see in a major Hollywood film.
But Eastwood makes it greater than the sum of its flawed parts – there’s something here that matters way more than his glossy award-baiter Changeling. Rolling patiently along, Gran Torino isn’t one of his best films.
Not even close. But it might be one of his most personal, most enjoyable and most important.