Review: Gran Torino's a Brilliant, Bad-Ass Clint Eastwood Ride

"Gran Torino holds a mirror to the face of an American dream in decline."


Remember that lovely middle class neighborhood where your mother said she attended high school? The one with the neatly lined sidewalk, wide front porches and manicured lawns, which has since crumbled into the scarred, gang-ridden part of town you avoid?

Ever been in awe of your father or your grandfather's virtuosic vocabulary of racial slurs that dates back seven decades? Or his rants on how everything's gone to sh*t since the [insert ethnicity] got off the boat?

Well if you've somehow forgotten, Gran Torino will remind you.

The 1972 Ford Gran Torino muscle car that glistens in Walt Kowalski's (Clint Eastwood) Detroit driveway attests to better days. When American automakers thrived, decency dictated behavior and hard work equaled the good life. Then Ford fell and Hmong immigrants moved in next door. Now that his wife's passed on, the former Ford employee and Korean War vet is a lone dinosaur in the graveyard of a soon-to-be-extinct species.

But though the film feels like a requiem, Kowalski's heart is still defiantly beating. With a personality as prickly as his looks -- flint-eyed squint, sour puss, scruffy hair -- he's a bad-ass old coot. With a stinging wit and a tongue that comes out swinging. "Grrr," he growls and spits his disapproval at the world. It's an idiosyncratic performance that might easily have descended into comedic caricature. But Clint somehow pulls it off with profound pathos and bravado.

When Thao, the son of the fatherless Hmong family next door, is harassed by a cousin and his crew of gang bangers, Walt does a Dirty Harry and steps in to save him. Grateful relatives shower him with gifts while Thao's sister Sue (Ahney Her) -- with a firecracker wit to match Kowalski's politically incorrect sense of humor -- coaxes him out of his bitter isolation into her home and the Hmong community. (With beer and home cookin'.) After Thao attempts to steal Walt's Gran Torino as a part of a gang initiation, his mother commands him to work off his debt doing whatever Walt tells him to. Having been a hard-to-please Dad for his own sons, Walt takes Thao under his wing. This means embroiling himself in the troubled youth's struggle to stay out of his cousin's gang, which inevitably leads to violence. At times a Wild West throw-down, at other moments terrifyingly honest and ugly. Think Dirty Harry: Redemption.

Ahney charms, but the rest of the cast's acting is muted and unmemorable. In the end, minus Ahney, Clint carries the film -- both as star and director -- on his formidable shoulders. Spectacularly. Yet in some situations, the success of a lone, gnarly geriatric vigilante prevailing over a multitude of well-armed, morally free-wheeling criminals seems unrealistic, as do his risky choices (risking more than his life) and the outcome of his final actions at the film's climax. The dialogue, however, is sly, captivating and hilarious.

Gran Torino holds a mirror to the face of an American dream in decline. The gritty, warts-and-all detail, understated truth and heartbreaking familiarity we see compose a reflection of ourselves that arguably no filmmaker or actor has revealed to audiences so accurately -- a face that's hard to forget while it still haunts us.

Grade: B+ (A for Clint, B for the rest ...)