Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (June 4, 2009)
For years, Clint Eastwood resisted public demands to bring back “Dirty” Harry Callahan. Via 2008’s Gran Torino, he throws fans a crumb, as the movie provides the closest thing to Dirty Harry we’re likely to ever get.
Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a recently widowed Korean War veteran who’s lived in the same suburban Detroit neighborhood for years. Over that time, the area’s racial complexion has changed, which the bigoted Walt doesn’t much like. Still, he stays to himself and deals with his own little world.
This changes when Walt gets to know the Hmong immigrants who live next door. Bookish Thao (Bee Vang) gets harassed by Latino gang-bangers, and his cousin “Spider”’s (Doug Moua) crew intercedes. Spider and his boys then pressure Thao to join them, and he eventually agrees.
As an initiation, they force Thao to steal Walt’s mint vintage Gran Torino. Walt thwarts this, but Spider still tries to bully Thao into his gang. When he tries to drag away Thao, a scuffle ensues. With a gruff “get off of my lawn” – and his old military rifle – Walt drives away Spider and his crew.
Despite his racist antipathy toward the neighbors, Walt becomes a neighborhood hero. Thao’s family forces him to perform chores for Walt to make up for his sins. Although Walt initially maintains his deep dislike of Asians, his interactions with Thao and his sister Sue (Ahney Her) start to break down his racial assumptions.
After a slew of movies with more obvious artist pretensions, Gran Torino feels more like a return to popcorn fare for Eastwood. Oh, the director does pack the film with apparent attempts at deeper themes; we’ve got death/dying, racism, religion and whatnot.
While those topics exist, they aren’t really at the core of Torino, I don’t think. Eastwood might want us to think he made a meaningful flick about all those topics, but he didn’t. As I alluded at the start, he essentially created Dirty Harry in Retirement. He can name the character whatever he wants, but Walt’s little more than a stand-in for Harry Callahan, and that factor gives the film its primary kick.
Really, as hard as Eastwood tries to ground Torino in reality, I find it tough to view it as anything other than the same kind of fantasy embraced by the “Dirty Harry” movies. This is politically incorrect geriatric wish fulfillment done up in Western garb. It may take place in modern day Detroit, but make no mistake: it’s a Western. That side of things becomes more obvious as it progresses; when we head toward the climax, the gunslinger analogies become even more obvious.
And you know what? All its pretensions aside, Torino delivers the goods. I really think Eastwood fares best when he embraces the popcorn side of things and doesn’t worry so much about Making Art. Torino entertains well when it stays with its curmudgeonly lead and his day-to-day interactions. Like Harry Callahan, Walt is unlikable on the surface but engaging in his crudeness.
Do we totally buy Walt’s transformation? Nope. Granted, the movie doesn’t portray him as a reformed former racist at the end of the tale, and in truth, it may not be fair to even consider him to be “racist”. Walt seems to hate pretty much everybody, so it’s not like he picks on any particular ethnic group.
Nonetheless, as a Korean War veteran, we can potentially see that Walt would maintain a greater disdain for Asians. I’m sure that’s why the story chooses the Hmong as the folks Walt befriends: it seems more remarkable that he could put his lifelong racism aside. However, it also makes that change tougher to swallow, especially because Walt so quickly accepts his Hmong neighbors. He doesn’t put up much of a fight as he pals around with Thao and Sue.
As far as I’m concerned, however, this doesn’t really matter. One can easily pick apart many aspects of Torino. Sue exists as little more than a plot device/expository character. Early in the film, it looks like she’ll become Walt’s main friend, but instead, she’s there simply as a bridge between Walt and Thao. She pops up occasionally to move along the story, but she’s not a real character.
Thao gets better development, but even he remains a bit of a void. When he first meet him, he seems like the scholarly sort, but then we never get any sense of him as smart or studious, and he ends up as a construction worker. That’s a good occupation, but it doesn’t make sense within his arc; why don’t we get more of a feeling that Thao will go to college and head down that path?
Because then he couldn’t bond with retired autoworker Walt, could he? Thao’s development doesn’t make much sense in the real world, but it fits the movie, so that's why it occurs.
Despite the mix of missteps, Torino proves consistently entertaining, largely through Eastwood’s sheer willpower. I don’t know if he’s made formal declarations of a retirement from acting, but I’ve heard rumblings that Walt might be his swansong. If Torino does become Eastwood’s final turn in front of the camera, he goes out on top. He takes a fairly one-dimensional, potentially unlikable character and makes him a lot of fun.
Seriously, if you can’t enjoy Eastwood’s frequent growls and the biting way he spits out “get off of my lawn”, then you’ll not like anything the man does. This is the kind of role that made Eastwood an icon, and he revels in the part. Given the chance to let himself go with as much bile and political incorrectness as he can muster, Eastwood has a ball in the role and single-handedly makes the movie entertaining.
So I do have many criticisms of Gran Torino, and Eastwood almost acts in a vacuum; the leaden performances from Vang and Her can’t remotely keep up with him, and the other supporting performers don’t add much either. Nonetheless, Eastwood is enough to make this an entertaining film. It’s not particularly deep or insightful, but it’s a good way to pass a couple of hours.