Gran Torino **1/2
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Written by Nick Schenk
Clint Eastwood as Walt Kowalski
Christopher Carley as Father Janovich
Bee Vang as Theo Vang Lor
Ahney Her as Sue Lor
Brian Haley as Mitch Kowalski
John Carroll Lynch as Barber Martin
Rated R for language throughout, and some violence.
"Gran Torino" helped me realize two things. The first is that Clint Eastwood has enough talent to be able to craft a decent film out of a problematic screenplay and several unintentionally funny moments through his actors. The second is that Eastwood does not drift from his normal style very often. "Gran Torino" is the second film by Clint Eastwood within the last two months, and it really seals the idea that he is nearly an unstoppable machine. In his mid-70's, he continues to act and direct in films, and although "Gran Torino" is the said to be his final acting job, its a fitting end to an extensive filmography.
That being said, it's quite clear that "Gran Torino" was made as a rush job-perhaps Eastwood had a little extra time after filming "Changeling." It's interesting how the repetition that Eastwood makes in his direction and acting never exactly bothered me before. Aside from his unjustified 2004 acting Oscar nomination for "Million Dollar Baby," I have taken in practically everything he's made with open arms. While several critics threw faults as "Changeling," I embraced Eastwood's ability to tell an engaging story better than many directors out there. But with another film coming out only fifty days later, I suddenly noticed how similar everything he touches really is.
Through his opening shots-which are generally a slow faded in exterior shot set to piano music of the same notes, often done by Eastwood himself, complet with a mildly tinted screen which numbs most of the colors-its very easy to identity it as an Eastwood. The beginning of "Gran Torino" starts the viewer off in a church, where Walt Kowalski is attending the funeral of his wife. A bitter and angry war vetern, Walt growls at the appearance of his grandchildren, baffled at the sports jerseys on the boy and the low cut shirt on the girl. Rejecting the "help" of his children, who want to put him in a home, or the local priest who continues to try and get Walt to attend confession, Walt reflects on the ever changing times on his porch with his dog, Daisy. He is also disgusted by the new next door neighbors, a family of Chinese people. When he ends up "saving" the two teenagers from a neighborhood gang, Walt takes them under his wing, particularly Theo, by setting him up with a job and giving him advice on how to meet girls and how to act manly. That is, until the gang decides to retaliate and stand up to Walt themselves.
There is something endearing about Eastwood's performance, despite the fact that he does not break any new boundaries for himself. It's almost a cross between "Million Dollar Baby" and "Dirty Harry," and a moment where he points a gun at one of the gang members and states, "Get off my lawn," is almost too remiiniscent of the latter cop film. However, there is something quite engaging about his work here. At the start, I was a bit put off by the constant growlings and continuous racial slurs. An extended scene where he talks to Theo about "the ways of the world" was somewhat awkward, and produced more laughs from the audience than I believe was originally intended. However, Walt grew on me, and it made the third act, which was rather rushed considering the glacial pace of the first ninety minutes, have more of an impact. The film ends on a rather perfect note as well, not giving us the shootout that may have been expected from the films premise, but ending in the only way that really makes sense considering Walt's character.
The supporting cast is full of amateur Asian actors, leading to a few cringle worthy moments based on their awkwardness. I can make a special notice of Ahney Her, whose managed to provide a nice counter to the bitter nature of Walt. Their scenes together are filled with geniuine humor as she is pretty much a foil of the vetern, and also the first person in the film who seems to treat him as a person for no other reason than she has the ability to see good in people. Work from the various members in the gang are very laughable, and while I understand that Eastwood was probably going for realism with the choice to use non-professionals, but at the expense of some potentially good performances instead of creating stock characters.
Flaws aside, "Gran Torino" is a somewhat worthy entry in the Eastwood canon. It certainly does not pack the punch that I felt "Changeling" did, and does not even come close to touching some of his more masterful works such as "Mystic River" or "Million Dollar Baby." And it also, sadly, made me more aware of Eastwood's repetitive nature-his visuals, his music, his themes, the roles he gives to religion and members of the church, and even his acting, which I'm almost sure will be honored with an Academy Award nomination. But for what? For rehashing a character that he's played over and over again? A different story does not change the fact that its nearly the same performance. "Gran Torino" provides some mild entertainment, but its apparent that Eastwood has lost some ambition. And when ambition comes out of the work it becomes formula. And yet I will not question Eastwood's ability to tell good stories, which has got him this far in his career and will work for him for many years to come.