Unofficially billed as Clint Eastwood's swansong to acting, Gran Torino is an arresting and poignant drama infused with Eastwood's brilliantly distinctive filmmaking style. Eastwood's second directorial undertaking for 2008 (previously helming Changeling) and his first screen performance since 2004's Million Dollar Baby, Gran Torino is an excellently written, well-performed character study of racism and redemption that fits contentedly beside the rest of Eastwood's cinematic oeuvre. This is a potent, effective and emotionally affecting drama - it's slow-paced yet subtly engaging, moderately unexciting yet it's virtually impossible to lose interest and it's never boring. Working from a script penned by first-time screenwriter Nick Schenk, Eastwood has utilised old-school (albeit somewhat outdated) filmmaking techniques to convey this gripping tale. Gran Torino doesn't offer avant-garde visual effects or glossy action sequences - it offers Clint "I'm still badass at 78" Eastwood, meticulous characters, and first-rate storytelling. It merges compelling drama with terrific subtle humour, and the product is simply outstanding.
Gran Torino stars Clint Eastwood as disgruntled Korean War veteran Walt Kowalski. Walt is a widower; a grumpy, tough-minded, unhappy old man whose family relationships are shaky, and who's openly racist against his Hmong neighbours - maintaining a rich passion for bigotry since enduring dark days in the Korean War. This prejudice explodes when Thao (Vang), the teenage son of the Hmong family next door, tries to steal Walt's prized possession - a 1972 Gran Torino, kept in mind condition - as part of a gang initiation. Several days later, upon observing a violent predicament concerning Thao, Walt feels compelled to intervene (in a classic Eastwood stand-off), and ultimately earns the respect of the Hmong community. Despite initially disliking the culture, this post-9/11 version of Dirty Harry Callahan warily develops a relationship with his neighbours. Walt aims to reform Thao, and soon begins taking steps to protect the Hmong family before the gang activity worsens. Serious questions soon begin to arise...questions of responsibility, of retribution...of the efficacy of blood for blood.
The majority of Gran Torino involves Walt coming to terms with his new Hmong buddies. Despite originally reluctant to befriend them due to his openly racist perspective, he eventually grows respect for them. The movie's supreme moments depict Walt finding his footing at Hmong congregations, failing socialisation prospects, but lovin' the cooking. The crux of the story belongs to Walt and Thao as they develop a special bond. The relationship isn't played for Odd Couple chortles, but as an unlikely father/son partnership with Thao learning to improve his life through gruelling work and learning to avoid the lure of crime. While Bee Vang's performance appears to lack polish, this relationship remains an absorbing central piece of the Gran Torino puzzle.
Nick Schnek's screenplay for Gran Torino is imbued with textured Midwestern civilisation, utilising the discomfort between aged military vets who refuse to depart from their contented residences and the melting pot that surrounds them. Through this, Schnek has constructed a human story of tentative reverence and the clearing of conscience. Gran Torino doesn't present a scholastic version of race relations; however Schnek evidently understands the rancorous mentality of men like Walt who live and breathe outdated American values, and find their faith rewarded by the degeneration of respect in contemporary youth and the rise of foreign cultures in their own backyard. Schnek and Eastwood's joint efforts have turned Gran Torino into a motion picture that ponders violence, its place and its cost. Perhaps the greatest aspect of Schenk's screenplay is that it enticed Eastwood to finish his self-imposed acting hiatus and bring his unique aura back to the big screen one final time.
Gran Torino is no action movie; this is a lengthy character study that spends the majority of its two-hour runtime developing the characters through dialogue and bonding. Schnek endows his script with witty dialogue and fascinating conversations. Humour additionally plays a key role in the screenplay. However, the comedy isn't restricted to slapstick or juvenile humour...this is sophisticated humour, mainly concerning Walt's relationship with the contemporary world around him. Eastwood's snappy dialogue is guaranteed to provoke a laugh or two. Had this been a straight-up drama, the film would fail to properly engage for its duration. Had Gran Torino been imbued with an onslaught of hilarity, its impact would severely dissipate. The correct balance is achieved, which is certainly among the film's main strengths.
Gran Torino is predominantly naturalistic and grounded as opposed to Hollywood. It eschews the proverbial clichés in favour of producing something original. The film's climax is perhaps most commendable - unconventional, unpredictable and overflowing with emotionality, yet satisfying, symbolic, haunting, and ultimately very appropriate. This is a rare movie that doesn't implode in its final reel; in point of fact its dénouement elevates the flick tremendously. It's evident both Eastwood and Schnek put much thought into the best way to construct the conclusion. It's a credit to the film's ending that Walt exorcises his demons without violence or bogus redemption.
If this were a Hollywood production, Gran Torino would conclude with the villains receiving their comeuppance by means of a violent, preposterous shootout (Death Sentence, anybody?). In a Hollywood movie Walt would also magically transform into an old softie; he'd admit his mistakes, and reconnect with his family. These clichés never surface in Gran Torino, therein lying justification as to why it's so damn excellent. By the end Walt and his neighbours share an obvious affection, but at his heart he's still the same callous, pungent, elderly badass and his loneliness is satiated. Instead of Walt becoming changed by his new acquaintances, he intends to change them by taking Thao under his wing and aiming to build character...to transform him into a proper man. It's clear Walt loves both his Hmong neighbours and his family. Nevertheless he continues to call them racist slurs - not out of malice...plainly because it's just Walt's nature. Thao and Sue manage to look past Walt's exterior shell, understanding that they're merely words. They've seen the good in him, and this outweighs the factors that make the old man such a curmudgeon. Gran Torino is NOT Hollywood...this is Eastwood.
In the past, Clint Eastwood has earned two Academy Awards for directing - Million Dollar Baby and Unforgiven. His direction is once again sublime. Outstanding cinematography is employed, capturing the ambiance of suburbia with consummate skill. Music is applied sparingly. Barely 20% (give or take) of the two-hour runtime contains music, yet this approach succeeds remarkably. The Gran Torino song (played in full during the closing credits, with lyric-less notes used at select points throughout the film) is a poignant synthesis of beautiful singing (Clint Eastwood himself even sings!) and subtle, eloquent piano music. I continued to watch until the end credits expired...riveted, moved, and on the verge of tears. Motion pictures rarely, if ever, move me on such a profound level. Top honours to the filmmakers for pulling this off.
Envisage every unflinching, badass character Clint Eastwood has ever played. Now imagine these characters in their twilight years; wrinkled, fatigued, on death's door, and spitting in the face of death one last time in order to help a friend. Eastwood as Walt Kowalski is simply stunning; imposing, intimidating and realistic. Eastwood's raspy, growly acting denotes the actor's return to his teeth-clenched, asphalt-voiced roots - virtually an aged version of Dirty Harry Callahan. Discharging every Asian racial appellation known to man to sell Walt's cruel exterior, Eastwood assembles a character of gun-happy action, beer-soaked contemplation, and passionate defiance that could only be tackled by the screen legend.
Cocking his rifle when gang members intrude on his territory, Walt snarls "Get off my lawn" in a moment destined to become classic Eastwood, comfortably standing alongside "Make my day". Things get better when Walt confronts hoodlums playing grab-ass with Sue... "Ever notice how you come across somebody once in a while that you shouldn't have fucked with? That's me." This "me" isn't just Walt Kowalski... It's The Man with No Name taking aim in those classic spaghetti Westerns... It's Dirty Harry Callahan levelling his Magnum, asking "Do you feel lucky, punk?"... It's William Munny (Unforgiven) digging deep to note "It's a hell of a thing, killing a man. You take away all he's got and all he's ever gonna have"... It's Frankie Dunn (Million Dollar Baby) who knows "tough ain't enough".
Sharing the frame with the screen legend is a mixture of mostly first-time actors. Bee Vang and Ahney Her are watchable as Thao and Sue (respectively), but they occasionally lack a requisite spark to truly elevate their performances. However, as naturalistic actors they succeed. This isn't Hollywood material teeming with overacting...these are actors grounding their portrayals in realism. Despite terrifically playing the naturalism card, the cast do seem contrived from time to time. The worst offender here is Christopher Carley as the concerned young priest.
For Clint Eastwood fans, Gran Torino cannot be missed at any cost. If your admiration for Eastwood is based on the hard-edged characters he's renowned for playing, you'll love Gran Torino. This is a touching farewell and a hell-raising salute to every badass Eastwood character in existence. It's been hinted that this is Eastwood's final movie as an actor, and if so it's an extremely suitable goodbye to such a screen legend. This is a movie you must see - a poignant, touching, gratifying cinematic experience. Gran Torino is far smarter, broader, and funnier than it seems. This is the Eastwood we all remember in a pitch-perfect final performance. Whether you seek humour, drama or an onslaught of touching moments, this film will provide. Gran Torino - named after the 1972 car that Walt polishes like a symbol of his idealised past - is a humdinger of valedictory.
In a nutshell: Clint Eastwood went ahead and made my day.