Clint Eastwood's "Gran Torino" has all the makings of a mess. It's not an especially interesting movie to look at (it's set in a nondescript Detroit suburb), its message is deeply familiar (learn to love thy neighbor), and its central performance, by Eastwood himself, is so broad that it verges on vaudeville.

And yet the picture gets funnier as it goes along — it's sometimes startlingly hilarious; and the ending is original and unexpected, and very un-Clint-like.

Eastwood plays an irascible old coot named Walt Kowalski, a retired auto worker whose only loves in life, now that his wife has died, are his equally ancient dog and his mint-condition 1972 Ford Gran Torino, which he brings out of the garage during the day and parks in the front driveway, where he can admire its gleaming perfection from his porch, while sipping a beer.

The world has gone to hell since Walt's day. What's wrong with these kids, with their nose rings and snotty attitudes? And these scruffy gangbangers who prowl the streets at night? And what's happened to the neighborhood? Once it was filled with decent, hardworking people just like him. Now it's packed with Asians — Hmong, they call themselves — and whenever he sees one of them inadvertently trespassing on his lawn, he comes running out in full snarl, brandishing the M1 rifle he's kept since his Korean War days — back when the only good Asian was ... well, you get the picture. The man's an incorrigible, unthinking bigot.

But Walt gets drawn into the doings of the Hmong family next door after he catches its youngest member, Thao (Bee Vang), attempting to steal his Torino out of the garage. Thao was put up to this by his gangbanger cousin, Spider (Doua Moua), but no matter: The family is mortified. Determined to redeem their honor, they start bringing baskets of flowers and strange-looking food over and piling it on his porch. Walt, always happy for an excuse to snarl at somebody, throws it away. Then Thao's sister, Sue (Ahney Her), steps in. She suspects there's an actual human being buried somewhere within this old codger, and she invites Walt over for a family barbecue. Walt reluctantly agrees — "Just keep your hands off my dog," he grumps — and soon he's spending considerable time with Sue and her family, who introduce him to all sorts of weird — but tasty! — Hmong delicacies. Sue even starts calling him "Wally," which he hates. Well, sort of. When she's attacked by another pack of hoods, and Thao gets beaten down by Spider's gang, Walt goes looking for his old Army .45 automatic.

The story is filled with wonderful little side trips. "We gotta man you up," Walt tells Thao, before taking him to a barbershop run by an old friend (John Carroll Lynch, of "Zodiac"), so the kid can listen to the two old guys hurling fond epithets at one another. (It's a lesson that later comes in handy in a very cute way.) But the movie's through-line is Eastwood's performance, which has sly echoes of both Dirty Harry and the snarling Man with No Name he played in the old Sergio Leone spaghetti Westerns. Walt's an intransigent cuss, but the way the star plays him, his unending verbal abuse serves to defuse the multiform ethnic slurs he can never quite let go. It's kind of inspiring to hear him say to Sue, "Get me a beer, Dragon Lady," and to realize, along with her, that he means it in a good way.

Don't miss Kurt Loder's reviews of "The Reader" and "The Day the Earth Stood Still," also new in theaters this week.

Check out everything we've got on "Gran Torino."

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