If you’ve ever wondered what Harry Callahan would look like in retirement, “Gran Torino” offers a fairly good idea. True, the character played by Clint Eastwood isn’t the grizzled ex-cop that made him famous but Walt Kowalski, a curmudgeonly former Ford assembly-line worker (and recent widower) in suburban Detroit. But his offhanded bigotry and irascibility fit Dirty Harry to a Model T, and Eastwood has a field day scowling and, quite literally growling, through the role.
He is, in fact, the reason to see the movie, which is otherwise a pretty formulaic piece about how the old geezer becomes the unlikely protector of a family of foreigners that move in next door, and in particular a surrogate father-figure to the teen son and daughter. And they’re not merely foreigners, which would disturb him in any case; they’re Southeast Asian (Hmong, specifically), and so look very much like the “gooks” he killed during service in the Korean War.
Though this basic “reform of the codger” plot has been told many times, not only on the big screen but on the tube, what sets it apart in this case is both the degree of prejudice the old coot expresses—Walt uses about every derogatory term you can imagine—but the fact that it’s not really offensive. That’s because of the affection for Eastwood that a viewer automatically brings with him, which allows you to laugh at the character’s misguided attitudes rather than blanch at them. In his hands Walt Kowalski becomes a sort of spindly twenty-first century version of Archie Bunker, and you know that whatever he says, there’s a heart beating within him that will eventually win out. The picture thus delivers the message that there’s hope for every racist, no matter how set in his ways he might be—and that’s never out of date, whether or not it’s true.
Of course the comic quality of Walt’s put-downs not only of his new neighbors but also of his sons and their families—as well as of the boyish priest (Christopher Carley), who, true to the wishes of Kowalski’s wife, tries to get him to go to confession—is only part of the picture. When young Thao (Bee Vang) is pressured to join a local gang and then is caught trying to complete its initiation test—stealing Walt’s prized 1972 Gran Torino—the boy’s family forces him to make amends by doing work for Kowalski; and against expectations, Walt comes to admire the kid’s hard-working attitude. Walt also rescues Thao’s sister Sue (Ahney Her) when she’s threatened by a bunch of would-be street gangstas. Before you know it, he’s become a hero to the Hmong community, gets Thao a construction job and even accepts an invitation to a party at the neighbors’, where he may be the odd man out but curiously feels more at home than he does with is own children and grandchildren.
Needless to say, things can’t go smoothly forever. Walt shows signs of being seriously ill, and when the gang that’s targeted Thao returns with automatic weapons in hand, he decides to put a stop to the menace they pose to the kid’s chances. He readies his rifle and…well, let’s just say that for a septuagenarian he’s not out of guts, or of surprises.
These plot turns—including the obligatory uplifting postscript—are undoubtedly corny, but Eastwood pulls them off not only with a typically shrewd, controlled performance that takes advantage of the role’s possibilities without descending into hamminess, but with direction that’s spare and direct, getting across the story’s points without undue flash. And while he doesn’t work wonders with the supporting cast, who—apart from John Carroll Lynch, playing a neighborhood barber with whom Kowalski does what amounts to a soft-shoe routine in genially trading ethnic insults—are merely okay (the Hmong actors aren’t professional), he does elicit mostly natural, unforced turns from them. His crew—cinematographer Tom Stern, editors Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach, production designer James J. Murakami and art director John Warnke—follow his lead and do strong but unfussy work, making good use of the Michigan locations.
It’s hard to imagine “Gran Torino” without Eastwood. Happily, you don’t have to: with Clint in the driver’s seat, what might have been an old clunker comes very close to being a classic.