"Ever notice how you come across somebody once in a while that you shouldn't have f..cked with? That's me."
At first blush "Gran Torino" may seem like a "Grumpy Old Dirty Harry." Indeed, starring and directed by Clint Eastwood, the main character bears a superficial resemblance to the one in the "Dirty Harry" films, and early rumors about it implied that it was actually a story about the cop's retirement days. Nope. "Gran Torino" is far more sentimental than any Harry Callahan flick, and the main character in "Gran Torino" is far grouchier than Harry ever was, yet, remarkably, far more human.
Even more remarkable, I read recently that "Gran Torino" is the highest-grossing film Eastwood has ever made, remarkable when you consider he's done things like "The Outlaw Josey Wales," "Unforgiven," "Mystic River," "Letters from Iwo Jima," "Million Dollar Baby," and "The Changeling" to name but a few in addition to the "Dirty Harry" series. I also understand that he's said "Gran Torino" would be his last film as an actor, preferring to remain behind the camera from now on. Our loss if he does quit acting.
In "Gran Torino" Eastwood plays a retired autoworker, Walt Kowalski, now pushing eighty. His wife has just died, he's got lung cancer, and he lives alone in the same neighborhood he's lived in for heaven knows how long. He and his two sons and daughters-in-law barely speak, and he has no use for modern society's newfangled ways. The main reason he's alone, though, is that the world has passed him by. He longs for the good ol' days, when people were more conservative and less racially varied. Now, he finds himself encompassed by Southeast Asians, whom he distrusts, having fought in Korea. He chooses to keep to himself and considers his neighbors barbarians.
The first half of the movie shows us Walt's macho, ill-tempered attitude and his racist, hate-filled sentiments toward the surrounding populace, much of his outlook so excessively overboard it's amusing in its exaggeration. We shudder at Walt's stupidly blind prejudice, yet we can't help laugh, too, sometimes out loud, at the outrageousness of his behavior. For any clear-thinking, open-minded person these are guilty laughs, to be sure, but laughs nevertheless.
Walt is lonely and unhappy, his only friend his barber (John Carroll Lynch), with whom he has several scenes, the second of which is among the few that fail to ring true. He might have remained alone and sad, too, if he hadn't inadvertently met his neighbors, a Hmong family, when one night the boy, Thao (Bee Vang), tries to steal his prized 1972 Ford Gran Torino Sport. The Gran Torino represents everything Walt remembers good about the old days: It is big and bright and sleek and powerful, a symbol of America's dominance not only in the world of manufacturing but in everything else, from power to culture to civility. The idea of a "foreigner" trying to steal the car characterizes his worst fears about what has happened to his country.
Walt runs the boy off, but then something odd happens. When he finds out the boy lives next door, he decides to try to rehabilitate him when the kid's parents make him work off his debt to Walt. Then, as the old timer and the boy begin interacting, Walt finds the boy is not so different from any other kid after all, and Walt starts to take a greater interest in his well being. What's more, the boy's older sister, Sue (Ahney Her), who is in college, decides to rehabilitate Walt. She ignores his gruff exterior and invites him into her family's world. In addition, the Kowalski's family priest, Father Janovich (Christopher Carley), also takes an interest in Walt after Walt's wife dies; the priest is a young fellow, well meaning and persistent, who never gives up on the old man. I told you the story was sentimental, and the results are inevitable, with some truly sweet relationships developing.
Eastwood's well-known grimace and scowl find themselves on full display in the film, possibly to greater advantage than ever before. He becomes the embodiment of the tough guy with a heart of gold beneath the rough, weather-beaten facade. Bee Vang's boy next door is quiet and shy yet inwardly strong; we can see the potential there for a stable future. Christopher Carley's priest could have been another cliché, but he turns out to be anything but. His character proves as resilient as Eastwood's. In any case, the real standout is Ahney Her's role, the older sister. She's feisty, smart, and determined to be a friend to Walt, no matter what. It's hard not to fall in love with her charming yet firm disposition.
Of course, most films insist upon stronger conflicts than mere differences in cultural values, and "Gran Torino" is no exception. So we get a subplot involving gang wars and street thugs and such, culminating in a typically histrionic movie ending that probably won over audiences but doesn't do a lot for its credibility. You live with it and accept that the movie is going to have an even stronger social message than you might have anticipated.
Trivia notes: I've read that Eastwood did not initially intend to play the part of Walt Kowalski himself. He had several old friends in mind, like Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall, but neither actor was available, so he did it himself. Also, Eastwood is not new to a Gran Torino; he drove one in "The Enforcer." The name of the main character here is not only the same as the main character in the muscle-car movie "Vanishing Point," it was the name of a famous real-life wrestler, Walt "Killer" Kowalski. And again you'll hear Eastwood sing, this time over the closing credits.
The Warner video engineers replicate the movie's original 2.40:1 aspect ratio in an anamorphic transfer. There's a fair amount of natural film grain and a generally pale aspect to the image, both of which I remember from the movie theater and which the engineers wisely leave alone. It means the film has a somewhat subdued look to it, slightly exacerbated by the soft standard-definition reproduction. Even though the picture is not crystal clear by any standards, it does a good job conveying the story's dark mood.
The English soundtrack comes in Dolby Digital 5.1. It's reasonably clear and clean, with strong dynamics and bass when necessary; a wide front-channel spread; and a good, though subtle, use of the surrounds, mostly for environmental noises. The midrange is touch forward and hard, though; nothing serious. This is mostly a dialogue-driven movie, much it rather quiet, so don't expect the audio to be flashy in any way, just realistically effective.
Among the few extras is the featurette "Manning the Wheel: The Meaning of Manhood as Reflected in American Car Culture," around nine minutes on everything the automobile symbolizes in the film; and "Gran Torino: More Than a Car," a four-minute segment on cruisin' in Detroit and the joy and excitement of owning very special cars.
Then, we get twenty-nine scene selections; trailers at start-up; access to a digital copy download, Windows Media-compatible only and not compatible with Apple Macintosh or iPod devices; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; French and Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
Although we see an embittered Walt Kowalski preoccupied with a personal dreamworld that is no more, we also see a genuine human being under the surface, and one who comes around in the end. That "end" may be overly melodramatic, but along with the movie's uplifting message of hope, it's surely what sold it to viewers.
It's always nice to see a character reversal in a story, as Dickens's "A Christmas Carol" has shown for over 150 years. Walt is a sort of Scrooge for the modern age, with a rather overemphatic wallop to punctuate his conversion. While it may sound trite for me to say the movie will make you laugh and cry in almost equal measure, make you squirm, make you cringe, and make you happy at the same time, "Gran Torino" does, indeed, do all of these things. It is perhaps not a great movie, but it is surely a crowd pleaser.
Clint Eastwood has become one of Hollywood's best and most dependable filmmakers. If he won't be back as an actor, at least he went out in style.
"Don't call me Wally."