The Good: Decent acting, Themes, Most of the direction.
The Bad: PACING!, Generally unlikable characters, Difficult to watch.
The Basics: When Walt Kowalski's neighborhood is invaded by Hmong gangs who try to recruit his young neighbor, Kowalski becomes a Big Brother and takes back the block.
It is a strange thing to fly in the face of public opinion with any frequency - though I ought to state right off the bat that Gran Torino, despite being repetitive, stiflingly slow and difficult in the beginning makes a comeback of epic proportions enough to ultimately recommend it - but there are often films I review that virtually everyone else in the world loves and adores and I experience and my reaction is much less overwhelmed than that of the general populace. In other words, when I see something I have seen before, I do not simply laud it because it has more recognizable actors. I call it as it is, as I see it. That is where I fall on Gran Torino.
It seems as part of Oscar Pandering Season, great actors come out and try to impress viewers with the new old performance. 2008's "fish out of water" dark and uncomfortable roles for esteemed actors included Dustin Hoffman in Last Chance Harvey and Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino. And while many praise Hoffman and Eastwood for their acting, I praise the casting; both actors were well within the established emotional range of performances they had given in the past and they sell each movie more on their ability to take on that type of role than acting in a way that challenges the actors and gives the viewer something new. But, despite the hype, Gran Torino is not a terribly original movie. In fact, it was a pretty simple recasting of About Schmidt (reviewed here!), with an interethnic relations edge to it. Fortunately for Eastwood, who directed and starred in Gran Torino, that edge and the twist makes this film worth watching and a real powerhouse . . . eventually.
Walt Kowalski is a former Ford worker - from the assembly line - whose wife has died, leaving him alone in a neighborhood that is now predominately populated by Hmong immigrants. A Korean War veteran and a grouch, he avoids his adult sons and mostly sits on his porch drinking beer and looking disgustedly at the Asian immigrants in the area. Walt has new neighbors, including Thao and Sue, who are teenagers and try to be friendly despite Walt's gruff nature. Thao has a run-in with a gang and is rescued by his cousin's gang, which then attempts to get Thao to join them.
To join, Thao is charged with stealing Walt's 1972 Gran Torino, a mission Thao bumbles when Walt walks in on him making the attempt. Shortly thereafter, Thao's gangmember cousin comes and attempts to drag Thao off, only to create an altercation that spills out onto Walt's lawn. Walt breaks it up with his rifle and threats and the Hmong neighbors begin to see him as something of a neighborhood protector. While Sue immediately begins to bond with Walt through deflecting his racism and apparent indifference, Thao becomes his indentured servant to pay off the debt of the attempted carjacking. Soon, though, Walt realizes that the neighborhood will never be safe from the gangs and he sets out to do something about it.
Gran Torino is a laborious film to get into, presenting early scenes that are painful in their stifling mood. Walt Kowalski is not a happy guy and he is not even a decent guy. He is a beer-drinking old guard racist who survived Korea and yet never truly gave up the fight for "America." The establishment of his character takes a bit of time, but it is essentially a collection of scenes that create Kowalski as a quietly angry man who wants to be left alone because he simply doesn't like anyone else. The more I consider it, the more I realize exactly why this seemed so familiar and belabored. I - and most of the U.S. - have seen this precise character before: Andy Sipowicz. Kowalski is Sipowicz without the badge.
It is worth noting, as well, that Gran Torino is no Crash (reviewed here!). Where Crash was an exploration of the complexities of interethnic relations in Los Angeles and how people relate and fall apart over interethnic issues, Gran Torino is a predictable, direct character piece. The moment Kowalski first rescues Thao from the gang, Gran Torino becomes a remarkably simple movie that follows one of the most predictable arcs imaginable.
Based upon the setup, the viewer can pretty much figure that Kowalski is in for a Very Important Lesson. With the disdain he has for his own children, it becomes That Type Of Movie where he will either learn - though his interactions with Thao and Sun - to appreciate his own family or appreciate the Hmong and realize he has more in common with them than his own offspring. The only thing more disappointing than the film following such a predictable arc is when Kowalski explicitly states what is obvious to viewers in that regard.
How does Gran Torino get away with it then? It is predictable on the character and plot fronts, what makes it at all worth watching? While most people might say "the acting," I defy that because Clint Eastwood's tight-jawed performance is virtually identical to the clips I have seen of him in old Westerns so this is merely new lines for essentially an old performance. What makes Gran Torino different is the language and the humor. The language is necessarily appalling in this film. Walt and virtually every young man in the film hurl racist epitaphs and this quickly becomes monotonous. No one in Gran Torino truly wants to be left alone: the black youth are portrayed as pack animals (wolves), the Hmong gang members are portrayed as violent idiots, Hispanics have a lone appearance where their gang has nothing better to do than shout insults at Thao as he walks by, and all of the white folks who aren't indifferent are part of Walt's generation with the indifferent angry speech and the subtle (or less than) racism to anyone who is not white american. So, virtually everyone in Gran Torino speaks as if ethnicity is the most important characteristic and often is less-than-flattering in their portrayal of the differences between peoples.
What saves the film after an excruciating half-hour of boring setup is that the movie takes on a dark humor with lines that are funny. Yes, Gran Torino trades on seeing the humor in the racism of the prior generations and their inability to adapt to changing times. While Walt calls Thao "toad," his sister Sue takes the time to educate him on his misguided notions of Hmong people, giving back what he gets with a wit that surprises him. After the angry, seething Walt for the first portion of the film, Gran Torino picks up a banter that is quick and often funny, even when the humor is uncomfortable.
The resolution, while predictable, makes its necessary social statement. Still, to anyone who watches a lot of films, the movie is unsurprising and it does not do anything so exceptionally as to push the predictable storyline and themes into a category where the film is groundbreaking in any way. This truly is About Schmidt meets Crash.
As previously mentioned, Clint Eastwood gives what I tend to refer to as a "predictably great" performance. Eastwood is an actor of a caliber, dignity and experience that he can pull off a huge emotional range, though he tends to be used much more for heavy or gritty roles. This is to be expected from him. Eastwood does not portray much of an emotional range in Gran Torino and while he speaks lines we've not heard from him before as Walt, he pretty much presents a character in a range exactly as one might expect from Clint Eastwood. In other words, there is nothing truly new in his performance here.
Eastwood shines, though, when playing off Bee Vang (Thao) and Ahney Her (Sue). Her has brilliant on-screen chemistry with Eastwood as she quickly picks up a bantering ability that is expressive and lighter, easily offering a foil to his stern-jawed anger. Her is bright and plays Sue with a liveliness that actually is pleasant to watch. While Her is expressive, Vang's performance is a study in the portrayal of introversion. Vang is quiet and his performance often mimics Eastwood's in a way that reveals real potential for the actor. As well, he has a sense of comic timing that makes delivering some of his most difficult lines work perfectly.
But I'll continue to argue that Gran Torino is far from a perfect film and it is hardly as complicated or groundbreaking as many want to make it out to be. Instead, it has the daring vision to be realistic in the ways too few people talk about these days. And there is great merit in that, even when it is obvious.
For other works with John Carroll Lynch, check out:
Crazy, Stupid, Love.
For other film reviews, be sure to visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2012, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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