GRAN TORINO (Clint Eastwood, 2008)
For supposedly his last time performing on screen, Clint Eastwood chooses to go out as the kind of tough, no-nonsense son of a gun that has defined his acting career. In GRAN TORINO Eastwood is newly widowed Walt Kowalski, a crusty Korean War veteran who doesn't suffer anyone or mince words, no matter how inappropriate they might be. Walt's an equal opportunity offender who's just as quick to tell off his own children and grandkids as he is to apply racist terms to the many immigrants who now live in his old Detroit neighborhood.
The retired auto worker's most cherished possession is a 1972 Gran Torino, so he doesn't take kindly to Thao Vang Lor (Bee Vang) a boy from the Hmong family next door, trying to steal it as part of a gang initiation ritual. Walt feels no affection for the Lors, but when gang members try to take Thao, he chases them away.
Thao's grateful sister Sue (Ahney Her) and mother insist that the teen work for Walt as a means of atoning for the attempted car theft. Although Walt is reluctant to accept the offer, he acknowledges that this is a chance to get the neighborhood cleaned up how he wants. Through his work ethic, Thao slowly wins over Walt and increases the senior citizen's protective instinct for foreigners who end up having more in common with him than his own flesh and blood.
Like a new driver learning to operate a manual transmission, director Eastwood's awkward shifting of tones makes the lurching GRAN TORINO a frustrating ride. Parts of GRAN TORINO are clearly supposed to be funny. Eastwood's cranky old man act lets him verbally knock around a baby-faced priest, utter a stream of slurs, and even snarl the oldster rallying cry "get off my lawn" to no-good thugs.
The beloved movie star relishes the chance to put everyone in their place, but Eastwood may be having too much fun as he sets up ridiculously easy targets to hit, such as Walt's etiquette-lacking kin. Even if GRAN TORINO doesn't abide Walt's outdated racist words, it sympathizes with him and makes his offensiveness a charming quirk even in moments when his antiquated attitude shouldn't be humorous.
Nevertheless, actions may matter more than words, particularly when considering those long set in their ways, even if the comedy of Walt's insults can be jarring next to the cross-cultural and generational drama examining Eastwood's prototypical stoic hero. At a time when people rush to unload their innermost thoughts to anyone and everyone, Walt is a relic who clings to and attempts to squash his deepest feelings. How Walt lives is the only statement he needs to make, although it means presenting an incomplete picture to others.
GRAN TORINO is most invigorating when Walt's ways and beliefs are challenged. The crosscutting of culture-spanning similarities provides a strong argument for building understanding, but Walt's softening attitude toward those he once detested is less impactful due to uniformly bad supporting performances. Water may be able to wear down rock, but it's a stretch that the charisma-challenged neighbors would sway Walt.