One of the first things to hit you about watching this film, is it’s a film named after a car, that has nothing to do with racing, tuning or even driving cars. It’s a film about an old man, a Korean War veteran, that’s growing apart from his family and feels that the world has gone down the toilet, until he meets a couple of local kids who give him something to live for. Now that’s not to say that Gran Torino is in anyway mushy, because it isn’t; it’s a Clint Eastwood film through and through. Directed by Clint, Produced by Clint and Starring Clint, and as with any Clint Eastwood film you should expect a certain amount of growling, verbal abuse and action; which Gran Torino certainly provides.
Saying this is a Clint Eastwood film is no understatement, he couldn’t have made a bigger mark on this film if he tried, even his sons got involved; one in a starring role and another composed the score. The only thing Clint didn’t do, was write the screenplay, that was handled by first time screenwriter Nick Schenk who frankly did a fantastic job, so good in fact that when Clint got hold of the script he insisted that the studios not be allowed to change a single word (changes were eventually made, but only changing Minnesota, where the film was originally set, to Michigan, where it was finally shot).
The plot is surprisingly simplistic, yet at the same time multi-layered and rich with thought provoking elements, not to mention a thoroughly believable angry old man that isn’t afraid to get stuck in and give the local gangs what for.
It begins, with Walt Kowalski (Eastwood) burying his wife, and his disapproval for the way the world is turning out is instantly shown, as his own grandchildren are dressed like they are going to a rave and making jokes at their grandmothers funeral, prompting the Dirty Harry growl and glare that will be used so often during the next two hours. Walt’s bitterness is not unfounded, and you can easily see why he has become so grumpy and withdrawn from his family as they are all lazy, some are dope smoking, all selfish and only spend time with him when they want something.
He doesn’t disown his family, but remains withdrawn from them and lives a mostly private life, with his main point of contact being the local priest who is determined to get Walt to go to confession (something he flat-out refuses to do). Another of his main gripes with the world is seeing the state of the neighbourhood, as all other Americans have left and he is now surrounded by Hmong people from South East Asia, something the inherently racist Walt cannot abide. One night it gets too much for him, as a local Hmong gang begin beating the boy who lives next door and when it spills onto Walt’s front garden he grabs his old service rifle and orders the gang away.
The next day he finds out that he has, quite by accident and irritatingly, become the neighbourhood hero praised by all the local Hmong who shower him with food and gifts. He objects to this at first, determined not to be liked, until (after helping the girl next door avoid a potentially nasty situation with some other local gang) he slowly starts to grow closer to the kids living next door. And as the young lad he ‘rescued’ promises to do work for him for a while they become friends, with Walt acting as a sort of father figure, helping Tao (the young boy) find a job and giving him advice on his love life.
But it’s not all hunky-dory from there on in, the gang that Walt shooed from his lawn keep causing trouble, which causes Walt to react, and things escalate to violence against his new friends, and as we all know Clint wont stand for it; he hatches a plan, and goes to sort the gang out, with severe consequences for those involved.
To sum up, Gran Torino is almost like a neo-Dennis The Menace, told from Wilson’s point of view. Clint Eastwood being Wilson, the grumpy old man that’s annoyed by youth, hates Dennis (Tao and the other Hmong next door) and is just after his privacy, before slowly growing to like Dennis, then riding to the rescue when he gets into trouble.
Now, you could be forgiven for thinking that this entire film was Hmong propaganda just written to show how lovely they are as a people, whilst every American portrayed in the film (including Walt) has a real attitude problem, with the white young stereotyped to be as obnoxious as possible. But this film isn’t propaganda, and was written by a white man, it’s simply a different way of telling the buddy/mentor stories that need to have two very different people thrust together, such as Lethal Weapon, Rush Hour and Men in Black.
The film isn’t overly action-packed but that doesn’t seem to matter because there is a real story here, one that will hook you in, keep you entertained and have you really caring what happens to the characters. Plus, what action there is, is extremely well done, not simply filler; with every shot successfully driving the story forward.
Characterisation is also well done here, with Clint Eastwood’s Walt embodying the way many people feel having their neighbourhoods overrun by gangs and foreigners; he is the grumpy old man inside all of us, wishing people were hardworking, private preferably white (in his eyes) and most importantly not near him. In fact when he becomes the hero of the neighbourhood he does so purely by accident; “Get off my lawn” he tells the gang, not ‘leave the boy alone’ or ‘nobody does that sort of thing in my neighbourhood’ – “Get off my lawn.” And his actions work, they are noble and really make you want to stand up and do something about the problems in your community. His character also stays believable all the way through, as he never does a complete u-turn like Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, he accepts the people he likes, and is still short with everyone else; by the end of the film he is still calling Tao and his sister names like ‘egg-roll’ and ‘zipperhead’, however at some undefined point they shifted from being racial put-downs to affectionate nick-names.
The Hmong kids next door also seem well portrayed, I don’t pretend to know a lot about Hmong culture, but the kids are all traditional yet very American at the same time, and obviously have their own lives aside from the main story, not being completely tied to Walt.
This may not be a film for everyone, although even most people that usually dislike Clint Eastwood would get something positive out of this. Some people complain of slow pacing or a lack of action (I’ve already explain why the action isn’t an issue) and the pacing suits the style and tone of the film, in real life things wouldn’t kick off and finish in a day, it takes time to set things up and that time is put to good use here, fleshing out the characters and giving you something to care about. I would advise anyone to see the film as even if you are niggled by some small thing or are appalled by the racism early on, by the end you’ll have been happy, sad, annoyed and gung-ho, you’ll have laughed and you will appreciate what a good film this is.
To sum up, Gran Torino is basically a brilliant film. It’s Clint Eastwood’s first leading role since Million Dollar Baby, and whilst the sound of a 78 year old action hero wouldn’t normally fill me with confidence, he pulls it off perfectly, like no-one else could, and it is quite possibly the best I have ever seen him. It’s a film that will have you wanting to watch it again the second you finish, not because you’ll see the twists coming this time round, but simply because there hasn’t been a story this good, this well told, or this real, for years.