The racist, homophobic "Dirty Harry" Callahan has retired in Detroit. Sgt. Highway of "Heartbreak Ridge" may not wear his stripes, but he still keeps his rifle loaded. And William Munny, the haunted, aged gunfighter of "Unforgiven," has one last shot at redemption.
It took Clint Eastwood's entire career to build Walt Kowalski, the tough and bitter old bigot the actor plays in "Gran Torino."
It's a film about race and tolerance and a culture clash that, if Walt is lucky, will end in a draw. That's the best the embattled old white retired auto worker can hope for in an America that's a lot more multi-cultural than it used to be.
Walt is a modern day Archie Bunker. He has just buried his wife. He's not on good terms with his sons. But he's not leaving his corner of Greater Detroit just because Latinos, blacks and now Asians have moved in and brought teen gang problems with them. Walt has a defiant chip on his shoulder and a vast catalog of racial slurs at his disposal, many of them acquired during his Korean War service. He's too happy to trot them out when a Hmong family moves in next door.
"What are you fish-heads lookin' at?"
But Walt isn't blind. The gang wars mean that Hmong "cousins" want the boy next door as a recruit. The kid's initiation? Steal the old white man's prized 1972 Ford Gran Torino, a car Walt built on the line back when "muscle car" and "Detroit" weren't anachronisms.
But Walt foils this plan, and the boy's sister (Ahney Her, fresh and funny) shows up to insist that the boy has shamed the family. He owes Walt atonement, so she talks the old bigot and the Hmong punk, whom he calls "Toad" (Bee Vang), into a reluctant partnership.
Eastwood filmed this in a straightforward, old-school style, which suits the corny and too-predictable story. Walt warms to Toad (Thao is his real name) too easily. But he teaches him how to be a man in America - how to use tools, fix stuff, get a job and blend in with the politically incorrect. The director makes amusing points about how thin-skinned the culture can be about race, when, in the right hands, "hate speech" is just a way of appreciating our differences, something a grown man can do without giving or taking offense. Walt's a "polack." His barber's a "dago." What's the big frigging deal?
"Gran Torino" grinds through its gears in an efficient if generally graceless manner, with occasional blasts of violence interrupting a film that is content to be the cutest movie Clint's done since his days of co-starring with an orangutan. But it's an amiable and amusing sociology lesson, both for the people who can't get over the fact that a black man is now their president, as well as the more P.C. folks who elected him.
Sure, the premise is predictable. You know from the beginning that Walt's contact with his neighbors will soften him. And maybe the performances are a bit stiff from his young actors, all untrained first-timers. But "Gran Torino" becomes more intriguing as the journey it takes us on evolves and grows darker, albeit with Eastwood's trademark, no-nonsense aesthetic.
- Christy Lemire