Wednesday, January 21, 2009


Two-time Oscar winning director Clint Eastwood of "Million Dollar Baby" directs and stars in his new movie "Gran Torino," (**** out of ****) another top-drawer drama that appears to have been tailor-made for his talents and personality. Three-fourths of "Gran Torino" is as entertaining and amusing as any "All in the Family" episode except that the bigoted hero here indulges in profanity and racism galore. Mind you, this is an R-rated movie. The last quarter hour turns pretty grim and tragic, like John Wayne’s final western "The Shootist" (1976) as the hero asserts his beliefs in the face of insurmountable odds. Die-hard Clint fans will gobble up the first three-fourths of "Gran Torino," while the last fourth will surprise but sadden them. People that thought the ending to "Unforgiven" seemed unrealistic will probably applaud the "Gran Torino" finale. Ironically, despite his animosity toward his Asian neighbors, our hero mellows over the course of the film's 116 minutes, and the Asians become more like family to him than his own blood relatives.

"Gran Torino" qualifies as a first-rate character study about 78-year old, retired Ford assembly plant worker Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood of “Heartbreak Ridge”), who served his country patriotically in the Korean War and whose wife has just died. Left alone to fend for himself, Walt whiles away his days sitting on his front porch and guzzles one beer after another with his docile yellow Labrador named Daisy curled up contentedly at his feet. Walt mows his lawn with an old push mower and watches with disgust as the large population of mountain people—the Hmong--from Southeast Asia gradually take over his Detroit suburb. Indeed, Walt doesn't care for their kind, and they have no love lost for him. Walt's next door neighbors, an elderly grandmother (newcomer Chee Thao), her daughter with her own daughter Sue (Ahney Her) and her introverted son Thao (Bee Vang)living with her try to steer clear of Walt.

The teenaged Thao, who lives next door, doesn't have a job. One day a carload of Hispanic gangbangers give him grief as he is walking along a sidewalk minding his own business. Thao's own kind, another carload of just as unsavory young gangbangers, cruise to his rescue, and warn the Hispanics to watch out. These Asian gangbangers want to take Thao in as their latest gang member, and Thao decides to join them. If he can steal the vintage Ford Gran Torino that Walt has parked in his garage, the gangbangers will induct him as one of their own.

Predictably, Thao bungles the theft and his fellow gangbangers show up to take it out of his hide. While they are using him as a human punching bag, they make the mistake of trespassing on Walt's pathetic little lawn. Walt marches out to meet them with 9.5 pound American M1 Garand, .30-06 gas operated rifle anchored against his shoulder and its sights trained on them. "Get off my lawn," he growls with menace, and everybody retreats, especially the gangbangers. They resent Walt's intrusion and give him dirty looks. "We used to stack you up five deep like sandbags in Korea," he adds with his finger on the trigger. Reluctantly, these hard cases back off. Later, the entire Asian community visits Walt's house after the incident and stack tributes of flowers and food on his front steps as if they were visiting a shrine. Naturally, Walt doesn't understand any of this nonsense.

Sue visits Walt on his porch one day as he runs out of beer and invites him over for a drink. Walt meets the family and the tension between these neighbors gradually abates, enough so that Thao's mother and Sue force Thao to work off his attempted theft of Walt's car by performing odd jobs for him. Walt takes a shine to Thao, and they bond. Eventually, Walt becomes Thao mentor. He shows him how to become responsible, win the girl of his dreams, and obtain a job as a construction worker. Inevitably, the Asian gangbangers come back to haunt both Thao and Walt, but wily old Walt proves that old guys can be tough guys right up to the end.

Despite his age and wrinkles, Clint can still snarl with the best of them, and he looks every bit as lethal here as he did when he played Inspector Callahan in "Dirty Harry" back in 1971. The big difference is Walt wields an M-1 rifle rather than a Model 29 Smith & Wesson. As much as it is a character study, "Gran Torino" also shows how people from different races can see eye-to-eye with each other more than they can with their own kind. Walt admits that he never understood his two sons, and he has little respect for a young Catholic priest Father Janovich (Christopher Carley of “Garden State”) who he thinks is still wet behind the ears. The eponymous car is one that Walt helped build and he maintains in mint condition in his garage.

Altogether, "Gran Torino" ranks as a terrific Clint Eastwood epic until three-fourths of the way through when everything changes as Walt takes on the neighborhood gangbangers. Some of the best scenes involve Walt rescuing Sue from a trio of black thugs that scared off her white boyfriend and Walt teaching Thao how to talk like a man in a barbershop scene with Martin (John Carroll Lynch of “Zodiac”), a cantankerous Italian barber. "Gran Torino" unfolds at a leisurely pace, sketches in its plot and characters with affection, but never wears out its welcome.