Pros: Ahney Her
Cons: Like other Eastwood movies, could stand some editing tightening
Idiosyncratic Preface (for those who read my epinions sequentially):
I was not expecting Clint Eastwood's (2008) "Gran Torino" to have so many continuities with the movie I watched and epined about just before it: Johnnie To's "Running Out of Time" 1999). Yet both the sleek, then-37-year-old Andy Lau and the 78-year-old, grizzled, raspy-voiced Clint Eastwood were coughing up blood, reaching out to another, and strategizing how to bring down gangsters with the aid of police! Though "Gran Torino" has extensive discussion about guilt, morality, and masculinity and "Running Out of Time" is completely in the "Show Don't Tell" tradition...
Clint Eastwood has said that his performance as Walt Kowalski is probably that last time he will be in front of a movie camera, so the movie has to be considered a valediction, a culmination of his roles as a taciturn male who does not do dominance (though absorbing beatings and even a hanging earlier on the road into the setting sun). Walt expresses his contempt for (among others) preening would-be machos more verbally (adjectively?) in "Gran Torino" than in the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns. He does not get mad, but "gets even" in ways other than his Dirty Harry did. Walt stays cool and (like Andy Lau) plans tactics that (like ju-jitsu) uses the characteristics (especially macho posturing) against the Hmong gang members who have violated Walt's recently adopted family next door.
Having failed to connect with his own two sons, the retired autworker, Korean war veteran, and ethnic/racial epithet spewing Walt has lost his wife at the start of the movie. A very young and very Irish-looking priest (Christopher Carley) promised Walt's wife that he would try to help Walt after her death. His glib funeral sermon provides no comfort and Walt expresses considerable contempt for the "padre" (an address term seemingly left from Eastwood's westerns rather than something I think that a 78-year-old Polish former autoworker living in suburban Detroit would say!).
It is no surprise to any veteran moviegoer that the young priest will win some grudging respect from the contemptuous older man, and I think that the priest is the first person to whom Walt has ever told what haunts him from his stint in the Korean War—albeit outside the confessional.
I foreground that relationship, because I think that its importance has been overlooked or underestimated. It takes a fairly large bit of screen time.
The "heartwarming" tale of a grumpy old man finding that he has more in common with the family of Hmong refugees next door, one lacking any adult males gets most of the attention. Although Walt spews bigoted language like buckshot, he has a special animus for Asians, not bothering to distinguish Hmong from Koreans, Chinese, or Japanese.
Walt becomes a mentor for Thao(whose name he turns into "Toad") after Thao (Bee Vang) attempts to steal Walt's vintage car (the title 1972 Gran Torino). Walt comes to realize that Thao is trying not to be enlisted in a cousin's gang, and learns from Thao's sister Sue Lor (Ahney Her) Sue that the Hmong fought with the Americans in Vietnam. Walt teaches Thao how to fix things and the tangible accomplishment of tasks (and, eventually, a job) raises Thao's self-esteem.
Thao cannot take on five older males and the (seemingly terminally ill) Walt needs to find a way to protect Thao and Sue without Thao taking on the kind of heavy karmic load Walt carries.
I might have seen this as yet another instance of a white champion of oppressed nonwhites (Amistad, Biko, and the rest of the alphabet), but I went in expecting a Clint Eastwood movie. And got one. The movie is about Walt and his relationships. I thought that Walt's mentoring of Thao was "about" his failure with his own sons, and that Thao's ethnicity was incidental. Indubitably, that Walt is a racist adds frisson to taking on an Asian apprentice and magnifies the redemption aspect of the tale, but the dynamics of mentoring a fatherless boy would differ very little if the boy were a white neighbor (IMO).
Walt's regrets and survivor guilt have clear continuities with "Flags of Our Fathers" and "Million Dollar Baby" and (somewhat less so) "Mystic River" and "The Bridges of Madison County." And Thao is less surprising a choice of protégés than Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) in "Million Dollar Baby" was.
I think that the body of Eastwood's work as a director in the last two decades is quite substantial, and with the exception of "Absolute Power," he has dealt with aging in his acting roles as well.
The visuals of "Gran Torino" are less impressive than Eastwood's other 2008 movie, "The Changeling" and some other movies from Eastwood's autumnal years (though Tom Stern directed the photography of both 2008 Eastwood movies, both Iwo Jima movies, Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, and the upcoming Invictus).
Editor Joel Cox goes all the way back to 1980's "Bronco Billy" with Eastwood (winning both his guild's award and an Oscar for editing "The Unforgiven"). I think that in "Gran Torino" and elsewhere either Cox is reluctant to cut what his boss prints or Eastwood does not give him sufficient power. In general, I think that actor-directors need strong editors and that the pacing of their movies lags.
As good as late Eastwood movies have been, I think they could have been even better with more relentless editing. But though it's often too slow for me, I'm willing to accept Eastwood's pace because what is on the screen is so good. (And although he once could sing (Paint Your Wagon), his singing voice is gone and he should let others sing even songs he is involved in writing, such as the title song under the closing credits here.)
©2009, Stephen O. Murray