Word has it that “Gran Torino” is Clint Eastwood’s last turn on the big screen; he plans to stay behind the camera from here on out. Assuming that’s true, it’s hard to imagine a better final note for the grizzled 78-year-old.
Mr. Eastwood stars as Walt Kowalski, a Korean War veteran and former Ford factory worker who lives in a run-down portion of Detroit ravaged by white flight. The movie opens with the funeral for Walt’s wife, and as his family enters the church to pay their respects, he can do little more than grunt. Walt is old-school: He hates his children for driving Japanese trucks and his grandchildren for their insolence and impropriety.
It’s hard to blame him. The only time Walt’s son comes calling is to ask for Lions tickets and to try to put Walt into an assisted-living facility. The grandkids are even worse: Who wears a midriff-baring top and pecks away at a cell phone while she’s in a church, as granddaughter Ashley (Dreama Walker) does? Does she even realize how inappropriate it is for her to ask Walt whether she can have his couch for her dorm room after he dies?
Compounding Walt’s loneliness is that he has become a stranger in his hometown; his neighbors all have died or moved away, and a cadre of Hmong immigrants has taken their place. In his interactions with his Hmong neighbors, we see some of his less attractive, curmudgeonly attributes. Walt’s an unreconstructed racist and doesn’t much care who knows it, causing some strain with the family next door.
That tension comes to a head when Thao Vang Lor (Bee Vang), the teenage boy next door, tries to steal Walt’s prized 1972 Gran Torino as part of a gang initiation. Unaware that Thao was the would-be thief he chased off the night before, Walt breaks up a fight between the wayward youth and his gangster tormenters that spills onto his yard. Seen as a protector by the Hmong community, he is showered with gifts - much to his displeasure.
As the movie progresses, however, Walt comes to realize he has more in common with his culturally conservative, hardworking Hmong neighbors than with his own spoiled, modernized offspring. He takes Thao under his wing, teaching him the basics of home maintenance, and serves as a guardian angel of sorts for the Lor family when the Hmong gang reappears to torment them.
“Gran Torino” is surprisingly funny; as Walt’s icy exterior melts away and culture shock leads to wary respect, one can’t help but laugh. Though Walt’s casual racism might be off-putting for some viewers at first, it quickly spins away from true hatred and toward a mutual understanding that he shares with the other figures in his life (such as the barber with whom he trades good-natured taunts, a role played with great care by funnyman character actor John Carroll Lynch).
In addition to starring, Mr. Eastwood directs with his typically sure hand; the plot moves relentlessly forward, and few shots in the two-hour drama are wasted. Though some will feel cheated by the film’s climax - it is, in many ways, a repudiation of the Dirty Harry school of vigilantism - it’s hard not to be moved by Walt’s ultimate decision.
If this is the end of the road for the Man With No Name, it’s a memorable, winning way for him to go out.
TITLE: Gran Torino
RATING: R (Language throughout and some violence)
CREDITS: Directed by Clint Eastwood, written by Nick Schenk
RUNNING TIME: 116 minutes
WEB SITE: www.thegrantorino.com