Film review – Gran Torino (2008)

Clint Eastwood as Walt Kowalski
Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood)

Clint Eastwood’s place in cinema history has been well and truly established by both his iconic presence on screen and his talented work behind the camera. Eastwood really doesn’t need to prove himself any further but that hasn’t stopped him from continuing to create entertaining and well-crafted pieces of cinema. While Gran Torino is one of two films that he directed in 2008 (the magnificent Changeling being the other) it is the first film that he has acted in since his Academy Award winning 2004 film Million Dollar Baby.

It becomes clear very early on in Gran Torino that Eastwood is having a lot of fun. He plays Walt Kowalski, a Korean War veteran and recent widower who loves beer, guns and American made cars. He has no patience for his family, religion or the Hmong family who have moved in next door. Walt is Super Conservative Man and is all growls and snarls. Nevertheless, while Walt is clearly a grumpy old bastard he does have a sense of righteousness and the capacity to evolve beyond his prejudices. After stopping his young Hmong neighbour Thao (newcomer Beer Vang) from stealing his beloved 1972 Ford Gran Torino Walt learns about the gang problem in the neighbourhood. Thao had been instructed to steal the car by the local gang as a form of initiation and the same gang are also harassing Thao’s sister Sue (Ahney Her, another newcomer). After befriending Sue and taking Thao under his wing Walt becomes aware of the necessity to act against the gang.

Thao (Beer Vang) and Walt
Thao (Beer Vang) and Walt

As a director Eastwood has an extremely economical and fast filming style where he only allows one or two takes before moving on to the next scene. This certainly gives a very fresh and immediate feel to films with more professional actors but unfortunately the largely inexperienced Hmong cast in Gran Torino could have benefited from a few more retakes. The script could have also benefited from a bit more development, as there are several clunky cases of over explanatory dialogue. Nevertheless, Gran Torino is a terrific film and surprisingly funny. Nobody can snarl out insults like Eastwood does and his frequent tirades are often highly entertaining. Walt’s attempts to help Thao learn to act like a man are hilarious in their ridiculousness but also oddly sweet.

Walt evokes many of Eastwood’s legendary cop and cowboy tough guy characters, who considered themselves old-school defenders of justice and the American way. It is initially difficult not to imagine Walt as an aged version of Inspector “Dirty” Harry Callahan who tortures suspects (Dirty Harry) and make comments such as, “Nothing wrong with shooting as long as the right people get shot” (Magnum Force). But Gran Torino also evokes the more sophisticated values and ideas that Eastwood has imbedded in the films that he directs, in particular the theme of violence and revenge as soul destroying acts (see The Outlaw Josey Wales, Unforgiven, Mystic River). Gran Torino is not Eastwood’s best film as director or actor but it perfectly encapsulates his onscreen persona and his brilliant directorial career. 

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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  1. This was a special movie indeed. Watching Clint play – as you say, an old Dirty Harry was priceless. His subtlety in both storytelling and acting is amazing. 4.5 stars for this gem of a movie from me.

  2. I’m glad you enjoyed it. For me it is a lesser Eastwood film compared to some of the other amazing things he has does (both as an actor and a director) but it is still a great film.

    Having said that, your response is more in tune to what other critics are saying than my response, so maybe I should see it again and re-evaluate. I admit that I’m not 100% sure that my review is completely fair so I am more than willingly to give it another go.

  3. I just judge a movie on how it moves me or gets me to feel something. You have more of a critical and educated eye for what you are seeing.

    I guess you are critiquing the craft itself which gives you a far greater criteria to work through where I couldn’t care less about how it was crafted as long as it takes me on some kind of emotional journey.

    I related to everything in this movie; the quiet misunderstood boy trying to find his way, the gristled old bastard being left behind by a cold and self absorbed family. It had it all for me.

  4. You’re making me sound like some cold and distant academic! In fact, the emotional detachment that can often come with academia (but not always – I know plenty of exceptions) is why I got out.

    For me, an emotional response is as valid as it gets. I always listen to my gut feeling first when critiquing a film. I am only into cinema to the extent that I am because I love its power to move me so much. So I’m with you on the importance of an emotional journey. I just didn’t get that to the extent that I would have liked to from this film. I need to feel something like a punch in the stomach before I go as high as 4 out of 5. But, I am going to give this one another go.

  5. I look forward to the podcasts/vlogs of your reviews. They would go a long way to communicate your feelings and your quirky sense of humor is a huge asset that deserves to be unleashed on the people! Mwu HAHAHA!!! (evil laugh)

  6. I saw this one on the weekend too….while I was generally entertained by it, at the end I felt as though it couldn’t really decide what it was trying to do. Was it a comedy? Drama? Thriller? That doesn’t have to always be decided on but it felt pretty disjointed to me in a lot of ways. I did like a lot of the humour though. I would give it 3.5 stars.

    However, I went with some friends and the guy I sat next to was scatching – said it reminded him of a telemovie!!

  7. It sounds like you had a similar response to me and I think disjointed is a good way to describe it. However, it is still very entertaining and I also really enjoyed the humour.

    But your friend calling it a telemovie is really harsh!

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