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.
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.