Gran Torino

Before I went into this movie, I wasn't quite clear on what a Gran Torino was. I mean, I knew it was some kind of old car model, but apparently it's a Classic Car, the kind that makes people itch to own it -- at least when it's a 1972 Gran Torino, in mint condition. I don't quite see the attraction myself, but it is nice, and it makes everyone from the local gangstas to a spoiled teenage girl drool over it.

But to the plot: Clint Eastwood is Walt Kowalski, a recently widowed Korean War veteran. His neighborhood, Highland Park, a suburb of Detroit, is changing radically, as many such places are. The longtime car company employees like him are moving out in droves, and a whole bunch of other ethnic groups are moving in, forming rival gangs and clashing at every turn. Walt's constantly fixing and cleaning and tidying, and can't understand why every house on the block isn't exactly like his. He growls -- I mean literally growls -- at things he doesn't like, whether it's the sight of some prepubescent boys laughing when a woman drops a bag of groceries or the realization that his oldest son wants to pack him off to a retirement home.

We start at Walt's wife's funeral, where the officiating priest is a sixteen-year-old. Walt later says he's 27, but I have serious doubts about that. Anyway, though clearly Walt was always hard to get along with, to say the least, his wife's death has apparently sucked out the last of his tolerance. He uses racial and ethnic slurs I've never even heard of before. Half the audience seemed shocked at them, while the other half laughed nervously.

His neighbors, of whom he disapproves greatly, of course, are a Hmong family -- widowed mother and grandmother, and two kids, a teenage boy and girl named Thao and Sue (played by newcomers Bee Vang and Ahney Her, respectively). Thao's cousin goes by Spider (Doua Moua), and he runs the local Hmong gang, which is really just him and four other guys who like to ride around in a little white Honda with a gigantic spoiler on the back that makes it look vaguely silly. But they have gigantic guns as well, so I'm sure no one makes any comments.

Spider wants to help out his little cousin by making him part of the gang. Thao wants no part of it. They keep cruising along next to him while he walks, urging him to get in the car, and get annoyed when he refuses, even though obviously there's no room for anyone else in a little Honda that's already got five guys in it. But when they catch sight of that Gran Torino next door to Thao's house, they hatch a plan. Thao can steal the car for his initiation into the gang. Then they'll have room for everyone while they cruise.

You can imagine how thrilled Walt is when he discovers that someone's after his prized car, and he has both the guns and the ammo to show his displeasure. Even growling isn't enough here. The disgraced would-be thief confesses, and to reclaim the family honor, his mother insists that he work for Walt for two weeks to make amends.

Walt is maybe a little too tickled to have an able-bodied young man to order around. His impeccable house needs little help, but the neighborhood around it is another story, and poor Thao (or Toad, as Walt insists on calling him) doesn't have an easy time of this honor business. But slowly, Walt gets pulled into his family, even though culture shock and his vast repertoire of insults don't make things easy. It's Sue that's the prime mover, and I think sometimes she slightly regrets her efforts to drag Walt out of his crusty, angry shell, though she never gives up. It's the food that finally does it, I think, and no wonder. If you ever get the chance to try real Hmong egg rolls, do it. They're wonderful.

But the gang hasn't given up, and it's their angry efforts to pull Thao in -- and Walt's equally angry efforts to stop them -- that keep the movie going. Finally, inevitably, everything escalates out of control, and beyond forgiveness, and Walt makes it his mission to put things right as much as he can -- not just what's happening now, but also all the horrors of war that he lived through, contributed to, and can't let go of.

And there's SO much more I don't have room to talk about -- the crochety grandmother, Walt's failing health, his kids and grandkids, the teenage priest who turns out to be just as stubborn as Walt himself, in his quiet way. (The actor, Christopher Carley, is actually thirty, according to the imdb, but I'm still not quite convinced.)

I'm giving it four and a quarter idols. Sometimes Clint Eastwood almost sounds like a caricature of himself, because he's apparently permanently stuck with that low, growly whisper now, but he can still act up a storm, and he did a great job with the behind the scenes stuff, too. Most of the supporting cast don't have any acting credits to their names, but for the most part that makes it better -- you're not distracted by wondering where you've seen someone before, and they seem that much more like real, regular people, no matter what they might happen to look like. So go see it. I'll admit it -- it made me cry a little, so it must have been good.

Note: This is one of the most commented on reviews from the time before I had a site with the capability for comments, hence its inclusion here. Plus it's a good movie. For a while, it looked like this might be his last big acting job, since he's mainly producing and directing these days -- and this wouldn't be a bad way to bow out at all -- but now he has a new movie (that he isn't directing) tentatively planned for 2013 called Trouble with the Curve, so I guess that acting bug is hard to shake. Go, Clint!

Image: 
It doesn't seem to matter how old he is -- Clint Eastwood's still pretty scary.

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