- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Quick: Who’s the only actor big enough to make Quigley Publishing Co.’s survey of top 10 box-office draws in four different decades (topping that list at least once in three of those decades)?

The answer, of course, is Sergio Leone’s Man With No Name (although he goes by the alias Dirty Harry).

Now, Clint Eastwood is up to his old box-office tricks with the cathartic revenge thriller “Gran Torino.” Showing on fewer than 100 screens for its first four weekends, it exploded to the tune of a $30 million box office take from 2,800 screens on the fifth week for a total of $40 million thus far.

Despite a paucity of award talk thus far, don’t be surprised to hear increased Oscar buzz around Mr. Eastwood’s portrayal of Korean War vet Walt Kowalski.

“You only have to go back to ‘Million Dollar Baby’ to see a scenario like this,” says Steve Mason, the lead film-business reporter for Big Hollywood, “where Eastwood was not nominated for the Golden Globe for best actor, he was not nominated for the SAG award for best actor, and then found a way into the best-actor category. I think he’s going to be one of the five actors nominated for best actor now.”

Even when taking Mr. Eastwood’s pedigree into consideration, “Gran Torino’s” box-office haul has to be considered something of a surprise. With violent-crime rates remaining low relative to recent decades, the vigilante flick seemed to be a thing of the past — the total combined grosses of 2007’s “The Brave One” and “Death Sentence” were just over $46 million.

“Gran Torino” will probably pass that number by the end of business today. What gives?

In part, audiences are thrilled to see Mr. Eastwood in a throwback role as a Dirty Harry-esque vigilante. While it’s tough to buy into the notion of Jodie Foster or Kevin Bacon cleaning up our mean streets, who can doubt that Mr. Eastwood — even at 78 — can get the job done?

Still, there’s much more to “Gran Torino” — it’s misleading to categorize it as a simple revenge flick. The film is surprisingly — if discomfitingly — funny; Kowalski’s interactions with his Hmong neighbors and the unself-conscious, unapologetic racism he throws their way - as well as the casual racism the elder Hmong reciprocate with — is a humorously true-to-life, politically incorrect take on life in Middle America.

Who doesn’t recognize at least one cranky elder family member in Walt’s earthy growl? Walt’s playful needling of ethnic stereotyping with his Italian barber is the sort of thing that would get most coastal elites shunned from polite company, even though it’s never hurtful and both parties understand that it’s just good-natured jocularity.

As Mr. Mason points out, however, the movie’s appeal reaches far beyond older and white demographics. “There was a huge surge in business, not just among whites, but among minorities. There was a huge audience among inner-city, African Americans, Latinos - more young people showed up than ever could have been expected,” says Mr. Mason, adding that “25 percent of the audience was under the age of 25.” The movie seems to have struck a nerve with those whose neighborhoods have seen massive ethnic or racial change over the last several years.

“Gran Torino” is also a trenchant critique of the softness and cultural decadence of the generations of Americans succeeding Walt Kowalski and his cohort. His children are soft; his grandchildren are lazy, rude and have an unearned sense of entitlement.

As Walt gets to know the Hmong immigrants who now dominate his community, he comes to understand that their traditional values are more in line with his than those of his own family. Whereas the Hmong come together each weekend, look out for each other, and respect their elders, Walt’s kids only get in touch when they need to score Lions tickets or want to put him in a retirement community.

Additionally, “Gran Torino” features a subtle discussion on the difficulty — and importance — of immigrant assimilation into traditional American society. Until Walt gets involved with his young Hmong neighbor, Thao, it appears that Thao’s life has only one natural endpoint: gang membership. Walt teaches him the value of hard work and how to interact with the people he will rely on to get said work.

Compare Thao’s progress to the young Hmong gang members who torment the neighborhood. They have grown disconnected from their own culture and assimilated via the violent macho posturing that saturates the popular culture of American youth. When Walt takes his fists — and his guns — to the thugs walking the streets of his once-fair city, it’s an emotional release for anyone tired of being scared to walk in his own ‘hood.

Expect this movie to have legs in the weeks and months to come. “It’s a very simple movie, and it’s also very, very poignant, and it’s very entertaining,” says Mr. Mason.

In other words, it’s vintage Eastwood — and as theater owners have known for decades, vintage Eastwood means beaucoup box office.

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