Still the man – Gran Torino DVD review

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

Clint Eastwood is 78 years old. 78 years old! So before we can even talk about his latest film Gran Torino, 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 is one of the highest grossing films 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. Sadly, the film’s failings are the result of his unusually confused direction.

Eastwood stars 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 boy next door Thao (Vang), who tries to steal Walt’s beloved Ford Gran Torino (thanks to the insistence of his gang leader cousin Spider). 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 even racism if you hate everyone? The picture is at its best when playing up the comedy. Unfortunately, Eastwood can’t help but slip into melodrama (his previous film Changeling is also melodramatic, but at least it’s consistently melodramatic).

It’s surprising just how much of a crowd pleaser this film is. A friend of mine stated it was one of the best films they had ever seen, ever. Big words, and although I too enjoyed the film, it’s problems are far too glaring to ignore. There are some great elements in Nick Schenk’s screenplay, but some vital motivations are confusing and sometimes nonsensical (don’t get me started on the ending). Also, much of the dialogue is incredibly stilted and rarely sounds like anything a real human being would say. Clint can pull it off, obviously. When he 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 (Thao’s sister), the film falls apart.

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 let them impress. Famous for his cut-and-run 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. Now I’m not implying that Eastwood is a bad director, because his filmography obviously indicates that isn’t the case. However, Gran Torino is tonally inconsistent and for the most part, poorly acted. What saves it all is Clint’s starring performance; a fitting send-off for the ultimate anti-hero.


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