DENNIS SCHWARTZ 
IS THERE ANY GOOD 
IN SAYING 
EVERYTHING ABOUT A MOVIE?

 
GRAN TORINO (director: Clint Eastwood; screenwriters: Nick Schenk/based on a story by Dave Johannson and Mr. Schenk; cinematographer: Tom Stern; editors: Joel Cox/Gary D. Roach; music: Kyle Eastwood/Michael Stevens; cast: Clint Eastwood (Walt Kowalski), Bee Vang (Thao Lor), Ahney Her (Sue Lor), Christopher Carley (Father Janovich), Brian Haley (Mitch Kowalski), Geraldine Hughes (Karen Kowalski), Dreama Walker (Ashley Kowalski), Brian Howe (Steve Kowalski), John Carroll Lynch (Barber Martin), William Hill (Tim Kennedy), Chee Thao (Grandma), Brooke Chia Thao (Vu); Runtime: 116; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Clint Eastwood/Robert Lorenz/Bill Gerber; Warner Brothers; 2008)

 
"Modestly gripping topical urban drama."

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The 78-year-old Clint Eastwood ("Unforgiven"/"Million Dollar Baby"/"Changeling") directs and stars in this modestly gripping topical urban drama that although contrived nevertheless engages the audience in dealing with some real problems facing a changing America reeling from economic decline and a misguided series of wars. It brings up the ghost of Dirty Harry to frame its story on violence, bigotry, the clash of cultures, the influence of the Roman Catholic Church, being an American and the lack of Law and Order. Though far from a great film, it still is a challenging one that provides no answers to real urban problems but raises enough emotionally charged radio talk show hot-button questions about modern and traditional values to be worth a look to see how far Eastwood has strayed from his Inspector Harry Callahan days. It's a populist film that plays off the Eastwood iconic image, telling his new audience what they want to hear a 21st century Dirty Harry type tell them about how to deal with the current crop of bad guys and it reassures us that not all bigots are that bad and that they can be humanized with love.

It's based on a story by Dave Johannson and Nick Schenk, and the all too predictable script is by Schenk. Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood), the Polish-American film's strong-willed hero, is an angry old-timer racist curmudgeon, who was decorated during the Korean War, retired as an auto worker at Ford, prizes his vintage 1972 Gran Torino above all else, and lives in the same neighborhood of working-class private houses he raised his two grown sons with his beloved wife. But the scowling man from another era has to now deal with the area being rundown, whites moving out and Asians moving in.

After Walt's wife died and his spoiled upscale sons, the youngest a salesman for Japanese cars, show up to the church service with the older one's daughter exposing her belly button ring and text messaging during the service, Walt just wants to be left alone with his faithful yellow Labrador Daisy drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon on his porch and is content to be grumbling under his breath about all the "gooks," "swamp rats" and "zipperheads" spoiling the neighborhood.

The film's Dirty Harry moment comes when an Asian street gang is harassing Walt's Hmong immigrant next-door neighbors (they hail from Laos and Thailand, supporting America during the Vietnam War) and when they step on his lawn he pulls out his high-powered rifle brought home from heavy duty during the Korean War and prevents them from assaulting one of his neighbors by growling at them "Ever notice how you come across somebody once in a while you shouldn't have fucked with? That's me." Though the neighbors were hostile before, the Asians go full blast to thank Walt for assisting them. It leads to friendship with the feisty and gregarious teenager Sue Lor (Ahney Her) and her younger sullen and timid teen brother Thao (Bee Vang), and an eventual change of heart for the recalcitrant Walt who also becomes the family's protector and a surrogate father to the teens. 

Walt gets drawn into the family's problems (telling himself: "I have more in common with these gooks than with my own spoiled, rotten family") and proves to be a likable cuss even though he insults everyone he speaks to with snappy racial retorts ala Archie Bunker, insults that don't seem to bother the recipients as they shrug it off and accept it as part of the American experience. It's an ugly and brutal film, where Sue is savagely raped and beaten by the Hmong gang and Thao is threatened to join the gang or else. Walt, like many other Eastwood characters is a narcissistic savior figure, sees that it's up to him to save the family from this gang, while the kids teach the embittered old man to open up his heart and let the hate out. The inexperienced baby-faced 27-year-old priest (Christopher Carley) at his local church is around to show the lapsed Catholic that the church is not useless but can be there to comfort its parishioners in its time of need if they can just trust in the Lord. 

The old-fashioned melodrama works in the same way it did in the past for those social conscience Cagney and Bogart films for Warners, no better or worse. But one must say, Eastwood's directing is most pleasing to behold; there's a relaxed pace mixed in with comedy and intense scenes skillfully shot that overcome the shortcomings of the ham-fisted script and leave us with the questionable crowd-pleasing libertarian impression that a white man, even an old one, with a gun is still a better deterrent to crime than anything else that American society can come up with.

REVIEWED ON 1/10/2009       GRADE: B-

Dennis Schwartz: "Ozus' World Movie Reviews"

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