Somewhat billed as Clint Eastwood’s acting swansong, Gran Torino is really just the actor interpolating his squinty-eyed, mean-man persona into what’s essentially a mediocre neighborhood vigilante film, and as much as one warms up to his portrayal of a flagrant racist named Walt – quite a feat, really, given the mouthful of epithets he volleys at every group – this is an extremely flawed film.
The main sore spot is Nick Schenk and Dave Johannson’s script that tweaks the eighties vigilante story – an aging tough guy unwilling to take crap from the gangs making the local hood a miserable place – by removing all elements of drugs and sleaze and replacing them with a prosaically offensive racist hero who learns to live after being dead in his heart for decades.
Charles Bronson probably kept the mortgage payments in check with his Death Wish films, and Chuck Norris played variations in his martial arts/crime/western hybrids, and if one really distills the vigilante genre to its base elements, it’s a western that, in Gran Torino, has Eastwood’s racist becoming the town hero after standing up to crooks and saving the town from scum.
The titular famous car is the magical horse or shiny gun that represents the hero’s strength and indomitability, and while it doesn’t get much use in the film, it’s the magical icon that’s ultimately passed on to a deserving surrogate son - a neighboring Hmong kid nicknamed ‘Toad’ - rather than the sons Walt raised badly and who became rotten, greedy yuppies with undisciplined tweens.
Like the western, the story also has Toad finding some inner courage, as well as learning when to think instead of acting on a knee-jerk response after being (literally) branded a coward by his peers (a bunch of gang-bangers headed by a rotten older cousin), as well as his family.
It’s easy to see why Eastwood warmed to the role of an aging war hero who refutes violence and teaches a young boy a few life lessons. It’s not a far variation of Unforgiven (1992), except Walt gave up the way of the gun decades ago; he just picks up a shotgun once in a while and uses it as a prop to keep peace on his acre of suburban land.
Eastwood’s mean-man persona is always a treat, but it’s an archetype that doesn’t leave much room for depth; its success relies on the actor’s physical features as well as our own familiarity with the actor, but there isn’t much to Walt because most of the surrounding characters are shopworn clichés – particularly his sons, the neighbors, and the young preacher who, as in a western, learns some life lessons from a man well familiar with death, guilt, and ‘living with the wrongs they didn’t tell you to commit’ from the Korean War.
Had any actor played Walt, the script’s screeching flaws would’ve killed the film, and no one except Eastwood manages to transcend the awful dialogue. The preacher (whom Walt brands “padre,” just as in an old WWII actioner or western) is gratingly annoying, and the pivotal scene where Walt sits down with the padre to infer the plan he’s embarking on to save the local hood from thugs contains amazingly clichéd dialogue; much like John Carpenter’s Vampires, (1998) the dialogue scenes periodically pay homage to western-chat, but the filmmakers failed to recognize the use of such tired verbiage also dates scenes, and robs them of any dramatic impact.
There’s also the issue of Walt being an ignoble hero on a path to self-sacrifice that’s forced into place by his own physical mortality (an unspecified terminal illness). After trying to make peace with one of his sons, he organizes his will and makes sure his new surrogate family (Toad) gets his prized possessions (the car, as well as the dog). Walt’s sacrificial death is both a rejection of his past violent life and racist behaviour, and while it’s all fine that Walt dies in an inglorious bloodless hail of bullets, lying dead in a perfect Christ pose looks silly; it would’ve been logical that he lies crumpled or askew on the lawn like a war hero instead of looking like a religious aerial marker to passing police helicopters.
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Eastwood’s direction is characteristically assured, and the production is first-rate, but Gran Torino is a weak and ill-chosen work. There’s little doubt efforts were made to create a populist, sanitized moral tale about redemption and the rejection of violence (as well as its glorification in film), but like the end credit song crooned by a scratchy Eastwood, it’s dreadful melodrama, and bleeds bathos.
Warner Bros.’ DVD includes two quick featurettes on classic cars and their meaning to the characters and the story, and while the DVD transfer is clean, there are occasional moments where the digital compression is obvious on this single layer DVD.
© 2009 Mark R. Hasan