By Jas Singh
The name Clint Eastwood is synonymous with iconic films, conjuring up images of characters, scenes and dialogue that have come to define generations of filmgoers. With Gran Torino, Eastwood reminds the audience that he still has what it takes to be a solid entertainer.
Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a Korean War veteran who has just lost his wife. He’s been through a lot in his life and doesn’t seem to care much for the rest of the world. Everyone — from his grandchildren to his neighbors — annoys him, and his anger towards life has turned him into a coldhearted, racist human being.
Walt lives in a diverse neighborhood that has become rundown with the presence of gangs. One day, Thao (Bee Vang), under pressure to join a gang, tries to steal Walt’s 1972 Gran Torino. Walt catches him and isn’t afraid to show him the barrel end of his gun.
But he saves Thao’s sister, Sue (Ahney Her), from being harassed by a group of men, and Walt soon becomes accepting of the girl and her family, the Hmongs.
What begins as a movie seemingly about respect and culture becomes a coming-of-age tale for both Walt and Thao. Thao is a geeky teenager one would never suspect of stealing a candy bar, let alone a car. So when Thao’s family hears of his actions, they are ashamed, and as is customary in their culture, offer him to Walt as a sort of servant.
The film works to develop a relationship between Walt and Thao as master and worker but becomes one of mentor and student. Walt teaches Thao everything from how to talk to girls to how to be a man. Through Thao, we learn more about Walt’s past, about the war and his life before his wife’s passing.
The film is touching, even when the character we are to sympathize with is a grouchy old man, incapable of compassion toward the rest of the world. Yet we watch him grow to not only care about people, but also to accept and respect them.
Eastwood, as the star and director, is flawless. There really isn’t anything the man can’t do. He plays Walt almost as a grown-up, hardened version of his iconic “Dirty” Harry Callahan, who spent the 1970s and ’80s trying to clean up the streets, only to find that his efforts were futile. Walt lost his wife and only clings to his prized vehicle, which puts the wheels in motion in establishing another relationship.
While Eastwood shines in just about every scene, the supporting actors don’t quite reach that level. Perhaps it’s difficult to compare younger actors with someone of Eastwood’s caliber, but at the same time, one must rise to the occasion and be equal in a scene. Vang is sadly the only one who works well, perhaps unintentionally, as he gets considerable screen time to let the audience relate to him. A close second would be Her, who plays Sue with conviction.
The screenplay works well in places, again, mostly when Eastwood’s character is on screen. His dialogue is sure to make some uncomfortable, letting loose racial slurs and whatever else is on his mind. But there are many humorous moments, that give insight into Walt’s mind.
The film definitely has its flaws, from some weak and somewhat generic character exposition, especially in defining the younger generation as technology-crazed and disrespectful. There is some social commentary on the matter, but all of it seems forced onto the audience, instead of just being subtly shown.
As a whole, the film works; from the very first frame, we’re hooked. Whether we hate him or like him, we want to see how both Walt and the audience will be changed by the experience.