Gran Torino opens with Clint Eastwood’s Walt Kowalski, standing in a church, grimacing and growling under his breath as his grandkids enter the funeral service for their grandmother.¬† One of the kids is wearing a Detroit Lions jersey and the other sports a navel ring and is constantly playing on her cell phone.¬† Not exactly the attire, nor the demeanor, fit for a funeral.¬† We quickly glimpse a key theme throughout the film.¬† The juxtaposition of a proud American and Korean War veteran, a throwback to a past era set against the modern day world where morality and family values seem to be eroding.¬† You can sense the pot simmering to a boil, ready to set off an alarm.
A star known for characters like Dirty Harry Callahan and the Outlaw Josey Wales, Clint is bringing back the ultimate tough guy for one more go ‚Äėround.¬† Living in a rundown Michigan area that now has become an Asian neighborhood, the bereaved Walt doesn’t exactly mesh with his neighbors.¬† When the shotgun-toting vet intervenes during a commotion at his neighbor’s house, the family is grateful and regularly shows their gratitude that he initially wants no part of.¬† Yeah, Kowalski is a bigot and a racist but also a bad ass, that prefers to keep to himself.
A ’72 Gran Torino is Walt’s prized possession and is also sought after by an Asian gang who harass the neighborhood.¬† A botched theft of the car pushes Walt closer to the edge and the ‚Äėhood on notice.¬† Don’t mess with this man.¬† When Walt’s neighbor Thao attempts to repay him for trying to steal said vehicle, an unlikely friendship is formed.¬† Walt teaches Thao how to become a man, all the while getting more attached to the family, primarily via their values which mirror his.¬† Kowalski is a guy who nobody seems to understand due to his difficult past, but he finds solace amongst his Hmong neighbors who accept him for who he is.
Surprisingly, the movie often delivers what plays in large part like sketch comedy with Walt spitting verbal zingers throughout.¬† This is ratcheted up during one of Walt’s efforts to teach Thao “guy speak.”¬† He has Thao re-enter a barbershop three different times trying to learn how to get the lingo down, with Thao failing miserably often to comedic effect.¬† Also, when a preacher who tracks Walt down at a local watering hole orders a Diet Coke, Walt retorts, “No you won’t. You’re in a bar and you’ll have a real drink.”¬† The “padre” acquiesces to this real man quota.¬† Walt calls the preacher a “27-year old virgin who knows nothing about life or death.”¬† Both tough and funny stuff.
The tension builds throughout eventually provoking Walt into action but its still more comedic than dramatic overall.¬† Torino is peppered with language more colorful than that found in the controversial Towelhead earlier this year.¬† The slurs are usually played for laughs and they work more often than they fail, even if you have to laugh through your teeth.¬† Haphazardly tossing out words like “gook,” “slope,” and “spook,” but as in 2006′s Crash, the filmmakers want you to laugh at the epithets while also learning from them.¬† Since Walt changes in heart but not speech, the message can be a bit misleading.
The biggest problems with the film lie in the script and some of the acting.¬† While Clint is surly and solid, delivering (for the most part) what we want as an audience, his young Hmong friends simply cannot share the screen with him.¬† Being that the leads are acting newbies, it’s not a shock as I am sure that they were cast for authenticities sake, but the results are painful nevertheless.¬† The thugs are incredibly formulaic, their dialogue stilted, and their outcome relatively predictable.¬† While Thao’s sister Sue is charming, she awkwardly delivers her lines and shares no chemistry with Clint.¬† Walt’s weakening to Thao was also completely predictable, if unbelievable.
The audience will react in kind to seeing the screen icon in his classic form one last time.¬† Acting for the first time since 2004′s Million Dollar Baby, it’s likely a tough guy farewell for Clint, made all the more poignant by the film’s end.¬† The National Board of Review has honored Torino by naming Clint their Best Actor for 2008.¬† Though a stretch, it’s understandable to get nostalgic for this type of character.¬† To Eastwood’s credit, Walt is easy to root for, even amidst all the foul-language and racism.¬† What I can’t believe is that the NBR also named Nick Schenk their winner for Best Original Screenplay.¬† This is completely misguided as the film is too predictable and formulaic, and it’s way too preachy a script to be honored in such a way.¬† It’s a travesty that would undoubtedly piss Walt off.