January 15, 2009

Movie Review: Gran Torino

grantorino2_largeWhen news of this film began hitting the net some time ago, it was thought to potentially be the return of Harry "Dirty Harry" Callahan to the big screen. The timing seemed right for Clint to bring back one of his most iconic characters for one more go around. Well, it turned out not to be true. Although, with Walt Kowalski, does it seem as if Clint may have had Harry in the back of his mind as he went about crafting just what this disgruntled old curmudgeon would be like on the screen. Well, perhaps a cross between Harry and Jeff Dunham's Walter. In any case, the audience is the winner as we get a fascinating story of vengeance, regret, friendship, and redemption.

grantorinopic4Walter's (Clint Eastwood) wife has just passed and he spends his days sitting on his porch with his dog, Daisy, drinking beer and making sure people stay off of his lawn. His relationship with his children and grandchildren is icy at best. They see him as an angry old man who does not listen to them (actually, this is not that far from the truth), and he sees them as ingrates who do not respect America and work in dead end jobs. Walt is not one to sugar coat his feelings and is quick to give a sneer and growl at anything or anyone he does not like.

Walt's issues just escalate when an Asian family moves in next door with the non-English speaking grandmother, strange customs, and odd foods. This does not sit well with the aged Korean veteran, but it is a sign of changing times. The neighborhood where Walt has lived most of his life has slowly been changing into an immigrant neighborhood with escalating gang activity. It is clear that is is merely a matter of time before Walt is forced into something he does not want to do.

It becomes clear early on that Walter is more than just a cranky old man set in racist ways. He is living with a past that weighs heavily on him and at his advanced age, it is becoming more and more of a burden he will eventually need to exorcise himself of. The first step towards his personal redemption comes when the neighbor boy, Thao (Bee Vang), attempts to steal his prized 1972 mint-condition Gran Torino as part of his gang initiation, but is interrupted when Walt investigates. This pretty much seals his opinion of the new neighbors.

grantorinopic5Things take a turn when Walt steps up to protect his property and ends up saving the neighbors from a local gang that has come to give Thao a second chance. This paints Walt as something of a hero to the neighborhood, a title he wants absolutely nothing to do with.

What happens next shows that the old man can learn new tricks, or at least has the intelligence to realize that he needs to adapt somewhat if he is ever to make peace with himself. He is forced into the role or mentor for Thao. He teaches him how to work with tools and uses him to help fix up homes around the neighborhood, and even goes so far as to teach him how to interact with other males. By imparting this knowledge on Thao and by taking an interest in the boy, he is awakening something inside himself. His desire for redemption becomes stronger and stronger.

The story is a simple one, but it is told in a way that is simultaneously hilarious and achingly sad. It is a balance that cannot be easy to maintain, yet it holds throughout as it builds to a climax that is wholly unexpected and leaves deep emotional marks. It is credit to Nick Schenk and David Johannson story that holds true to through the climax, never watering it down for easy consumption. On top of that, leave it to Clint Eastwood to bring it to the screen in such fashion.

grantorinopic2Acting is fine. Clint Eastwood clearly has a handle on Walter and does not shy away from being decidedly non-politically correct. The character spouts racial epithets at nearly every opportunity, even when he likes his chosen target. Bee Vang may not be the greatest of actors (there are a few moments that are sure to induce some unintentional chuckles), but there is genuine development as he slowly opens up throughout the film. Likewise, Ahney Her, playing Thao's older sister Sue, also delivers the goods with some sparkling delivery and a rapport with Clint's Walter that works to deepen the meaning to Walt's transition.

Despite all of the good, there is one performance misfire that is rather glaring. Christopher Carley's Father Janovich just comes across as wrong. I suspect it is not so much the performance as the way the character is written. Frankly, it is not a terribly realistic portrayal of a Catholic priest. He is out of his color too often and the stilted way he speaks sounds as if it were written by someone who does not know many priests. The character's purpose is an important one, but it is the one character that could have used another pass or two.

Gran Torino is a film that is filled with great moments that have a cumulative effect. It may not be the most realistic approach to the material, but it feels genuine and the cast of primarily non-professional actors do a fine job supporting Clint. The story speaks to the effects of violence, living with regret and how people of apparently different backgrounds can have more in common than one would suspect. We are also given some information on the Hmong immigrants and their background and customs.

Bottomline. Overall, this is quite a spectacular film. It is not a grand or epic film, it is one that keeps its scope small and personal while dealing with larger issues. It is effective and one that will give you something to chew on long after the credits have rolled.

Highly Recommended.


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