Eastwood revives old persona for ‘Gran Torino’
Aspen, CO Colorado
We all need Dirty Harry. Even Clint Eastwood needs him ” with his “you-feel-lucky-punks” and that all-perceiving squint of moral discernment. Clint-as-Harry isn’t a man’s man; he’s a man’s man’s man, a paragon of taciturn machismo that other paragons look to in times of crisis. When you need some dude to come along and wreak justice upon the scum of the earth, he’s pretty much your guy.
So I understand, really I do, why Eastwood the director dusted off Dirty Harry and hired Eastwood the actor to play him in “Gran Torino.” He isn’t called Dirty Harry in the movie ” he’s an old fart named Walt ” but there’s no mistaking the rasp in his voice or the uncompromising crankiness of his “Weltanschauung.” If you wondered whatever became of Inspector Callahan after “The Dead Pool,” well, look at him now: a widowed Polish-American Korean War vet stubbornly hanging onto his house, his ethnic hatreds and his 1972 Ford Gran Torino in a tough part of Detroit.
Walt needs redemption. That’s obvious enough, even without the puppy-faced cleric (Christopher Carley) who keeps showing up outside his door, pressing him for his confession. Father Janovich is a stock character cut from some truly flimsy cardboard ” he can barely hold it together in two dimensions ” but he’s a fair indicator of the movie’s best inclinations and worst flaws. It wears its morals on its sleeve, right next to its cliche heroics and transparently manipulative plot.
This marks Eastwood’s first appearance as an actor since 2004’s “Million Dollar Baby,” and he’s already earned accolades for his work behind and before the camera. But I belong to a different school of thought. In my school, dubbed the What Am I Not Getting? Academy, “Gran Torino” is the most obvious and least interesting of the four movies he’s directed in the past two years.
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Written by first-timers Dave Johannson and Nick Schenk, it opens at the funeral for Walt’s late wife. There we find his spoiled granddaughter and two boob sons, who seize the occasion to whine about his shortcomings (great timing, fellas): “Dad still lives in the fifties,” and “There’s nothing anyone can do that won’t disappoint the old man.” In the eulogy, the priest lobs the usual rhetorical questions. “What is death? Is it the end, or is it the beginning?” And, while he’s on the subject, “What is life?”
” Walt’s response to this and other stabs at philosophizing is to look annoyed and mutter a flood of pejoratives, including several outmoded racist terms from the drive-in era. He calls the Hmong in his neighborhood “slopes” and “gooks” and “swamp rats,” which would, under normal circumstances, reveal him as the worst sort of jackass, but these are hardly normal circumstances. This is Eastwood, people. Before long, the angry white codger will come to their rescue.
The key to everything is that beaut in the garage, a shiny ’72 Torino. Bookish teen Thao (Bee Vang), forced by a shady cousin and his gang, makes a weak attempt at stealing it. Walt busts him, holds him at gunpoint and scares off the gangsters. In the days that follow, Thao’s grateful family crowd his porch with riots of flowers and tray after tray of food. They persuade him to let Thao work as recompense. And, sure enough, Walt bends his stiffly bigoted posture for the lovely Hmong clan next door.
These scenes, driven by abrasive humor and gently simmering warmth, are the beating heart of “Gran Torino.” When Walt mentors Thao, spars with his feisty sister (Ahney Her) or avoids his truculent grandmother (Chee Thao), the film has an easy, unforced vibe. Eastwood does a better job directing the largely non-professional Hmong cast than he does directing himself. He just keeps doing his Dirty Harry glare, whipping out guns real and imaginary. But it’s hard not to see him as Mr. Wilson ” Dennis the Menace’s crotchety neighbor. Skinnier, hairier, no mustache. All the same, a startling resemblance.
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