Friday, January 16, 2009

Grumpy Old Clint

Yesterday we had a movie that made full use of its star's larger-than-life persona in The Wrestler. Today, by contrast we have a completely different kind of movie. And by "different," I mean, "the same." It's ...

Gran Torino (d. Clint Eastwood)

A Korean War vet, 30-year Ford employee, and recent widower, Walt Kowalski is old, cantankerous, and firmly set in his ways. Even after his Detroit neighborhood is overrun by immigrants (Walt uses less polite terms to describe them), he remains, meticulously caring for his lawn and scrupulously maintaining his pride and joy: a mint 1972 Ford Gran Torino.

Most of the immigrants around Walt's house are Hmong, an indigenous southeast Asian people who backed the U.S. during Viet Nam, then fled when they were targeted for retribution by the Communist forces. Thousands have moved to this country and in Walt's opinion, way too many of them are moving in around him.

He has little use for the Hmong family next door, especially after their son Thao tries (ineptly) to steal Walt's car as part of a gang initiation. But when Thao is threatened by that same gang and their violence spills over onto Walt's precious lawn, he unintentionally comes to the rescue. Thao's sister Sue coaxes Walt over to their house to say thanks and the bitter old man discovers that he has more in common with her family than he has with his own. Plus the dumpling chicken is real good.

The Hmong gang doesn't just slink away after Walt scares them off. The violence escalates and it becomes clear to Walt that something has to be done to ensure Thao and Sue's safety. Something drastic.

And if there ever was a man for the job, it would be the director/star of Gran Torino. Over the years, Clint Eastwood has been The Man With No Name, "Dirty" Harry Callahan, the Outlaw Josey Wales, bare-knuckle fighter Philo Beddoe, gunfighter William Munny and a host of other take-charge guys. This film carries with it a temptation to see Walt Kowalski as a kind of AARP-member Dirty Harry, the tough, intolerant son of a buck who's quick to solve his problems with a bullet and a one-liner. But Walt has much more in common with Unforgiven's William Munny, a violent man who regrets past actions, yet sees more violence inevitably headed his way.

As a director, Eastwood has become the great American tragedian of the cinema with characters trapped in webs of their own making, as in the great Mystic River. Or others buffeted by uncaring cosmic forces like in the (also) great Million Dollar Baby. Or still others who find whole societies and power structures arrayed against them, such as happened in this year's earlier Clint masterpiece, Changeling. Gran Torino falls neatly into that tragic column. Walt Kowalski is a man trapped in a circle of violence by his own stubbornness and skill. "I finish things," he says. And he's determined to finish things with the Hmong street gang that threatens his neighbors.

Gran Torino relies a little overmuch on the Eastwood mystique to give its main character gravity and substance. Could this film even exist with a different actor in the lead role? A Bruce Willis maybe? I suppose it could, but it would be a completely different animal.

As Thao and Sue, Eastwood casts first-time Hmong actors Bee Vang and Ahney Her. Like the fresh-faced leads in Slumdog Millionaire, they bring an appropriate openness to their parts with Ahney Her deserving particular praise. It's important that these kids feel new in the movie: new to the neighborhood, new to the country, new to Walt, new to us. They do.

Naturally, this is Eastwood's show. He's a tough old bird in a tough situation. Just the way, I suspect, he likes it. Gran Torino may not quite fire on all cylinders, but its still a collector's item.

3 stars.

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