Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood, 2008)


The key to enjoying “Gran Torino?”  Simple: don’t take it too seriously.  “Million Dollar Baby” and its heartwarming relationship between up-and-coming female boxer and cantankerous trainer that ends in tragedy?  Take that seriously.  “Unforgiven,” reshaping the Western as we know it as a realistic morality play?  Take that seriously.  But “Gran Torino?”  Just look at the commercials, complete with Clint’s “get off my lawwwwn” – the line that’s destined to become the next “I drink your milkshake!” – and take a hint, people: don’t take this movie too seriously.  Don’t try to look for grand statements on seeing past skin color or learning to love your fellow man or some moral of the story, because it is what it is: Clint Eastwood as the ultimate crotchety, filthily racist grandpa spewing some of the most vile (and hilarious) one-liners, like, ever.  I laughed more than anything at Eastwood’s performance, ‘cuz it is as over-the-top as the commercials lead you to believe (yes, “Gran Torino” makes racism funny, don’t be afraid to laugh for god’s sake), and I didn’t take it too seriously (at least initially), and as a result, I enjoyed the living hell out of this movie.

Clint Eastwood is one of the most prolific actors ever, and oh by the way, now he’s also arguably one of the most prolific directors ever, with two Oscars under his belt and a recent two-film WWII epic.  No small feat…which is why he’s easily earned the right to turn around and churn out, in the shadows of the more hyped “Changeling,” a little movie featuring an over-the-top racist coot in a shitty Detroit suburb.  On any other day, this would be a shitty movie with an age-old formula: prototypical grumpy racist grandpa hates his ungrateful children and rotten grandchildren and loves only three things: his recently deceased wife, his dog, and his vintage ’72 Gran Torino.  Of course, he catches the awkward and shy Hmong boy next door trying to steal the beloved car as a gang initiation and begrudgingly takes the kid under his wing, and of course learns the error of his bigoted ways as the two form a deep bond, while that dreaded gang breathes down their necks.  Can’t blame you if you can’t take something that clichéd seriously, and a lot of this movie is really, really corny, but thank god there’s a saving grace here: Clint Eastwood is fucking awesome as Walt, and by the end, beyond badass.  Yes, it’s just as silly and over-the-top a performance as the “get off my lawn” commercials lead you to believe, but that’s why it’s so much fun to watch.  Hell, it’s almost a parody of every hyper-masculinized, cantankerous anti-protagonist he’s played throughout his long career – Clint Eastwood doing a Clint Eastwood impression – to the point that it’s best to laugh at how exaggerated the gravelly voice and guttural growls and scrunched-up angry faces and muttered racial slurs are, rather than treat this as a serious, bravura performance.  Am I appreciating it for all the wrong reasons?  Perhaps, but by that odd criteria it’s one of my favorite performances I’ve seen in some time, so what’s the difference how I judge it, as long as I like it?  And hell, as silly as Eastwood makes his Walt Kowalski, he has great chemistry with the otherwise bland actors playing Thao and his sister Sue (to be fair, though, they and most of the other Hmongs in the movie have no acting experience whatsoever).  I could’ve done without the “Do the Right Thing”-wannabe, ‘new-school Hmong teaches the old racist a thing or two about Hmong culture’ lectures, but the relationship between Walt and those savages next door he never knew he could care for is great, right down to the implicit understanding they have with each other’s shortcomings.  Walt has no reservations calling them gooks and chinks as he wades his way through a family gathering as Hmong relatives look on, shocked, but is clearly trying to be a gracious guest (he sure as hell doesn’t have a problem accepting helping after helping of delicious Hmong food).  Those words are just the way he is – a security blanket concealing that heart of gold he didn’t know he had.  Deal with it.

And you know what?  Somehow Eastwood the director makes Eastwood the over-actor and an otherwise-saccharine story involving.  The budding friendship between Walt and Thao (or Toad as Walt initially calls him) is established in a montage like any other, but is sweet.  A scene where Walt takes Thao to his just-as-racist barber to teach Thao a thing or two about how real men talk to each other, complete with racial slur after racial slur, is hysterical.  Walt beating the shit out of a gangbanger who went after Thao, complete with gun drawn and Walt looking down into the camera, is just as silly and exaggerated as Eastwood’s entire performance – and just as entertaining.  Maybe it’s Eastwood’s as-usual impeccable and subdued production value and camera, maybe it’s the surprisingly great chemistry between two exaggerated main characters, but hell, I was hooked – this clichéd story with clichéd story twists (too many stock flurries of bullets to be anything but predictable) and a silly-as-hell lead performance grabbed me, pulled me in.  Walt, that crotchety old bigot, broke his own rules and stumbled upon a deep understanding of and friendship with that pussy of a gook next door by accident, and hell, I broke my rule of not taking “Gran Torino” too seriously, ended up caring about these far from realistic characters by accident.  Screw the commercials and snickering at Clint Eastwood doing his worst Clint Eastwood impression, this is a damned good, well put-together movie.

It’s rumored that this’ll be Clint Eastwood’s last role in front of the camera.  Such a silly, and exaggerated, and (maybe intentionally, maybe unintentionally) funny role as his last hurrah?  A send-up of the Eastwood of old?  Some would call that disappointing, but I choose not to look at it solely as a send-up, but as a summation.  He was a cantankerous, no-nonsense young man as the Man with No Name, a cantankerous, no-nonsense middle-aged man as Dirty Harry, and a cantankerous, no-nonsense old man in “Unforgiven” and “Million Dollar Baby.”  And now, we see Walt Kowalski stand up to some thugs harassing Sue (“Ever notice how you come across somebody once in a while you shouldn’t have messed with? That’s me.”) while doing his best Dirty Harry impression, and Walt Kowalski having a grand stand-off with gangbangers in true Man with No Name fashion – cantankerous, not a shred of nonsense.  Really, what more does Clint Eastwood need to prove?


1 comment so far

  1. coffee on

    Clint Eastwood did a great job of using his outward crankiness to come across as mean as well as somehow heroic this newest film of his

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