Still the man – Gran Torino review

Gran Torino – Starring Clint Eastwood, Bee Vang and Ahney Her. Directed by Clint Eastwood. Rated M for coarse language and violence. 116 mins.

Clint Eastwood is 78 years old. 78 years old! So before we can even talk about the film, we’ve got to acknowledge how big a figure Eastwood still is; to the point that he can still open a movie at 78 years of age. Gran Torino is the man’s highest grossing film as an actor, and at this point is the 2nd highest grossing film of 2009. Look at the movie posters – it’s either a close up of Clint’s face, or him holding a rifle. Look at the trailer – Clint growling like crazy in front of a bunch of unknowns. Make no mistake; the success of this film rests purely on Eastwood’s shoulders. Predictably, the film’s failings fall on everyone else.

Eastwood directs himself as Walt Kowalski, a retired Ford assembly line worker, Korean War vet and professional racist. We meet him at the funeral of his wife, surrounded by insufferable children and intolerable grandkids. His family is wondering what to do with him now that he can’t take care of himself. They clearly don’t know him very well. Walt is full of bile and is as sprightly as a bigoted old man can be. His inventive vocabulary is extended towards his Hmong neighbours, who have taken over his formerly Polish neighborhood. Most of his hostility is reserved for shy Thao (Vang), the boy next door, when (upon the insistence of his gang leader cousin Spider) he tries to steal Walt’s beloved Ford Gran Torino. Enter Walt, with rifle.

No, Walt doesn’t kill the young boy. However, Spider and his crew eventually roll up to punish Thao for disrespecting their gang. The fight that ensues ends up on Walt’s front lawn. Bad idea. Re-enter Walt, with rifle, spouting the now infamous line, “get off my lawn”. Having saved Thao, Walt becomes the (extremely reluctant) hero of the neighborhood. Thao is sent to pay his debt to Walt by helping around the house, and Walt returns in kind by teaching Thao how to be a man.

Although it doesn’t really read as such in the synopsis, Gran Torino is quite funny. Eastwood isn’t exactly known for providing the yuks, but his Walt evolves into a charmingly comic guy. In fact, you’re even willing to forgive his venomous prejudice and chalk it up to simple ignorance. After all, Walt’s hatred isn’t reserved simply for the Hmong. Is it racism if you hate everyone?

It’s surprising just how much of a crowd pleaser this film is. One of my companions stated it was one of the best films they’ve ever seen, ever. Although I too enjoyed the film in spite of its problems, those problems cannot be ignored. There are good ideas in Nick Schenk’s screenplay (even if some vital motivations are confusing at best). However, much of the dialogue is incredibly stilted, and rarely sounds like anything a real human being would say. When Clint Eastwood says such dialogue with his growl and wry sense of humour (“I’ll blow a hole in your face and then sleep like a baby”), it works big time. When left to inexperienced actors like Vang and Her, it’s ridiculous.

And that brings us to the acting. While it’s admirable that Eastwood has filled the film with genuine Hmong actors, he doesn’t take the time to get good scenes out of them. Famous for his two take maximum direction, Eastwood really needed to give these kids a chance at getting the lines right. I’m not going to beat up two potentially talented actors; the fault here is bad direction. I know I said earlier that the failings of Gran Torino fall on everyone else, but I’m beginning to have second thoughts. Hmm, maybe after 78 years, the important stuff starts to slip.


Check the trailer out here.

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