Thursday, January 8, 2009

Gran Torino Review

When looking at Clint Eastwood's cinematic pedigree, one sees a bit of a recurring character. The Dirty Harry, take-no-prisoners, out for vengeance character. Which, to be honest, was what I was expecting coming into "Gran Torino". Interestingly enough, this character, while on the surface appeared to be similar to all those other characters, was much more subtle than all those movies that came before this. If you're looking for "Gran Torino" to be in the same vein as those other movies, you will almost certainly be disappointed. But if you can keep an open mind about what you're witnessing, then the movie can be a thought-provoking film with dynamic characters in its own right.

The movie follows Walt Kowalski (Eastwood) as he moves on from the death of his wife shortly before the movie begins. He is completely disconnected from his two boys and their families, a family that comes across as spoiled and ungrateful, despite Walt's overtly bitter attitude towards life in general. In the meantime, a Hmong family moves in next door and the young son Thao (Bee Vang) is recruited by the local Hmong gang to steal Walt's titular Gran Torino.

Walt does not take too kindly to this behavior and also happens to be one of the most racist men I have ever seen on film. Yet Eastwood plays it with such humor and lightheartedness that it becomes difficult to be offended. He seems to make it clear that he's less racist and more concerned about hating everybody. I certainly wouldn't be surprised to see a Youtube video at some point that is a compilation of all of his derogatory terms as he runs the gamut of every racist word for an Asian one could think of.

In the meantime, Walt is pursued by Father Janovich (Christopher Carley) who made a promise to Walt's passed wife that he would get Walt to go to confession, something Walt has absolutely no interest in doing. Yet confession does not seem to be what Walt needs and as he comes to realize what his life currently is, what he has, and the reality of the world around him, he begins to transform into something else. Only in the final surprising minutes do we see what that specifically is.

Eastwood again turns in a solid directorial effort that keeps the movie moving at a brisk pace. The way he conveys the different aspects of Walt's life and his inability to change with the times is nothing short of engaging. And Eastwood is clearly the most competent actor out of the entire bunch. With the exception of Walt's immediate and extended family, the acting was little more than mediocre and sometimes downright atrocious. Countless times I was taken out of the movie by an odd line delivery or the perception that the actor was just reading from a script instead of truly feeling his or her lines. The worst offenders are Father Janovich and Thao's sister, Sue (Ahney Her). I'm sure that it's very difficult to stay in the same league as someone of Eastwood's calibur but their quality was certainly not up to par.

Also surprisingly, the movie was absolutely hilarious. Walt's "I don't care" attitude led to some very funny and often times rather poignant moments and it's possible that without that humor, the movie would have suffered quite a bit. It made him more than a grumpy old man and more of a man a person could relate to.

I must be clear again: this is no Dirty Harry. In fact, one could argue that it is in fact the opposite of Dirty Harry. But even so, it exists as an excellent film that is a huge leap back to form for Eastwood whose "Changeling" from this past fall had the tendency to linger and seemed to have difficulty presenting a nuanced portrait of that story. This is a thought-provoking movie that has the power to stay with you well after you leave the theatre whose only real fault was a lack of quality acting.

And the fact that Clint Eastwood sings a song over the credits. Why he thought that was a good idea is anyone's guess.

Grade: B