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February 20, 2009
RATING: 8/10
One of the last major studio releases of 2008 was the highly anticipated Gran Torino, directed by and starring Academy Award-winner Clint Eastwood. At first glance the film's trailer perhaps hinted that Eastwood, a sort of mainstream outlaw in the film world who is nonetheless one of Hollywood's most bankable names at the box-office, intended to revisit the Dirty Harry action-thriller days of his career with a pre-fabbed shoot 'em up holiday flick. Rather than lean on his former bad ass sensibilities, however, what may very well be Eastwood's final acting performance turned out to be a gift far more powerful than another predictable, high-caliber BB gun tantalizingly laid under the Christmas tree.

Gran Torino's pre-release hype was filtered in a peculiar manner that rendered it as more about gratuitous violence and a few tough Any Which Way You Can-style buddy bombs - a ringer for a target audience longing for an Eastwoodian update on the Classic American Movie - than what it turned out to be. The film is not cut from the same cloth as the Eastwood flag that flew in the good old days, when good guys and bad guys were as clearly defined and as two dimensional as high noon Westerns shot in black and white. No, Gran Torino, it turns out, is not a predictable, old school, pro-violence blockbuster. Instead, it is a piece of art in the truest sense of filmmaking, with wide-reaching overtones and deeply running undercurrents, that lands somewhere in the rough, untamed interior that lies between Eastwood's dirty, gun-toting iconic gruffness and his Bridges of Madison County sensitivity.

Named after a two-door, limited sports edition Ford with a small-block Windsor V8 from the early 1970s (from the same family as the iconic "Starsky and Hutch" car), Gran Torino hides a lot of power under it's bonnet and has, if nothing else, succeeded in eliciting mixed emotional reviews on a wide range of topics and from a wide variety of critics. While some criticisms of the film seem unduly tied to pre-release misconceptions, after a run through the film it is easy to see why Eastwood's role as Walt Kowalski - a recently widowed Korean War veteran, retired autoworker, and unapologetic bigot living in modern day suburban Detroit - has people talking.

Although his vices do play a part in his final demise, as Gran Torino shakes out we see that Eastwood's grouchy old war hero is more a victim of white flight and a shrinking world than of alcohol and tobacco addiction. Likewise, when Kowalski begrudgingly recounts - to a neighborhood kid, rather than to his beloved deceased wife's seminary-fresh priest it should be noted - the number of "gooks" he shot in Korea, there is no post-traumatic stress disorder lurking under the surface. Instead, Eastwood's character is rendered as the slightly disoriented senior citizen of today, from a generation adept at dealing with true hardship but utterly unprepared to deal with a rapidly changing world that comes to resemble less and less of what they know. He takes pride in his flag, the country for which it stands and the property he calls his own; the direction to "stay off my lawn" in defense of the latter is the most common interaction he has with his neighbors.



Clinging to the familiar, Kowalski frames an immigrant Hmong family living next door in the mentality of his war days, defiling them with labels of "barbarians" and other, far less kind racial epithets. Walt "Don't call me Wally" Kowalski is certainly a grumpy old man, but not of the variety made lovable by Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. Of course with time and the overt, saintly sweetness of the Hmong family (and in particular the 17-year old Sue Lor, played by Ahney Her) next door, the modern day Archie Bunker in Eastwood's character eventually, at least to some extent, begins to thaw. It isn't that Kowalski's prejudicial and overtly macho tendencies disappear so much as they begrudgingly halt their advances, like glaciers of prehistoric mentality retreating in the face of neighborly multi-cultural warming.

Sue Lor's immature brother, in a hit-and-miss performance by Bee Vang, spurs the story on. Seeing the Hmong's number one son as a cowardly "pussy" in dire need of a remedial course in manhood, Kowalski decides to intervene just as Thao, or "Toad" as Kowalski likes to call him, is teetering on the somewhat stereotypical brink of being forced into joining an Asian gang. With little respect for the generational and cultural gaps that abound, the unflappable old man teaches him the fine art of (among other things) landscaping, appliance/home repair and, when Thao's affections for a girl named Youa (who is disparaged by Kowalski as "Miss Yum-Yum") become apparent, the finer points of courtship.

Without a doubt the dirty old man at the center of Gran Torino - ignorant of not only the wider world but his very own neighborhood, quick with a slur, and generally disgruntled - is a deplorable character. Unfortunately many film critics, having grown accustomed to the politically correct political incorrectness and tastelessness of today's edgy-by-1950s-standards dialogue, seem to take more offense at Eastwood's fictional character than the very real racism he embodies. Walter Kowalski is indeed scary, rude, and unappealing. Perhaps more alarming, however, is that in his portrayal of the role, Eastwood is simply too real for those unwilling to confront the actualities of places throughout the great country Walter Kowalski loves, places were meaningful gentrification and any type of integration, be it economic or social, are lacking.



Though Eastwood's character is astoundingly out of touch with the world around him, Gran Torino could not be more keyed in to the coarse, wildly wrinkled fabric of America circa now. Detroit is indeed a largely jobless, incredibly harsh landscape. On Walt Kowalski's block there are no WiFi cafes dispensing shade grown Fair Trade lattes, no naturally lit Whole Foods markets. With General Motors leading the welfare parade of senile car companies toward Washington, if Kowalski weren't lucky enough to have already retired from his perch on the automotive plant assembly line he would certainly find himself unemployed and borderline unemployable in 2009. The "post-racial" utopia that many hoped would materialize in the wake of Barack Obama's election as the first non-Caucasian leader of the free world is nowhere to be found; instead the "nation of cowards" his Attorney General spoke of this week is still unable to confront the most unavoidable of realities.

No, it is not at all the Eastwoodian update on the Classic American Movie that the trailers baited us with. Instead, thankfully, Gran Torino turns out to be an against the grain tragedy that evokes all the conflicted feelings, and often lost potential, of America. It is, without question, a melancholy film, though to Eastwood's immense credit as a director much of the most heinous violence in Gran Torino, like the beating and rape of Sue Lor, is not directly depicted on the screen. It is through that tact as a director, as much as his power as an actor, that Eastwood allows the story to be both unapologetic and touching while giving a sense of cultural conflict's brutal realities.

For all of the razor edges it attempts to pass over in under two hours, Gran Torino is almost necessarily a tad trite at times, and there are plenty of "You know something, you're okay, kid," moments of aw-schucksness. But compressing the droplets of humanity tucked into the folds of such growly, scowl-faced dialogue into a trickling, recognizable dimension of an otherwise Neanderthal-like character is necessary for the film to achieve even its vague hints of redemption.

Though I may in truth be a tad jealous of Walt Kowalski - my first car was a Gran Torino, but of the awfully ugly four-door variety and with a lowly 301 Cleveland and no intake manifold - the truly impressive muscle in Gran Torino lies in the story, and in the remarkable gifts of Clint Eastwood's delivery both on the screen and behind the camera. It's just a shame that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences failed to notice.

TRAILER: www.youtube.com/watch?v=J9dy5yCUxOg

SEE ALSO: www.thegrantorino.com

--
Hugh Slesinger
A teacher, naturalist and eco-conscious real estate agent living in Occidental, California, Hugh Slesinger occasionally publishes his insights on life with LAS.

See other articles by Hugh Slesinger.

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