When I think of a grumpy old man, I think of none other than Walter Mathau. But after watching Clint Eastwood’s latest movie Gran Torino, I realize the scale that had Mathau on the top requires some adjustment. Eastwood takes the stodgy, miserable, old prick to new heights.
At year 78, he’s brought his Dirty Harry persona to the old age home with the character of Walt Kowalski, a grizzled widower, a racist and a veteran of the Korean War. He lives in a Detroit neighborhood that has seen better times; it is now rundown and overrun with gangs and, in Walt’s own words, “gooks” and “slopes”. But he soon finds himself involved with his “yellow” neighbors when he catches the boy Thao Lor (Bee Vang) trying to steal his prized Gran Torino during a gang initiation and when he saves the girl Sue Lor (Ahney Her) from a possible rape by some idling black kids on a street corner.
The Lors, as does the viewer as the movie progresses, see a redeeming quality in Walt (that his own children don’t see) and continually attempt to get through to him as thanks for all he has inadvertently done for their family. He’s not a bad man at heart, he’s just perpetually stuck in the 1950’s. This leads to some more than awkward, and unintentionally funny moments, including an extended family dinner at the Lor’s, at which Walt does and says everything insulting imaginable. The fascinating point to it all, is he thinks he is behaving quite normally and not for a second thinking that perhaps he is out of order.
It’s this melding of two vastly different cultures and mindsets that is at the crux of Gran Torino. Bit by bit Walt relearns what he’s been missing from his own family life as he lets Thao and Sue in behind his tough, grim exterior. In return, he takes the bashful Thao under his wings in an effort to make a man out of him. It’s a very enlightening tale, with some very bittersweet scenes shared between the three, all of which is held together by the strength of Eastwood’s presence. But that doesn’t mean the film is without flaws — some very serious flaws.
One that I couldn’t get over, as it pulled down the entire movie, was the weak performance by Bee Vang in his first major film role (actually his first role ever). There are many moments where powerful emotions are brought up and it was clear he didn’t have an inner well of inspiration to draw from. I imagine Eastwood (who also produced and directed) throwing his hands up in futility as he tried to get something out of Bee during one of the more pivotal climatic scenes, until finally just settling on the best of the worst takes. It’s a shame too, because the character of Thao had a lot to offer. I also wasn’t overly pleased with the ending. It was very cookie cutter and it did not belong tacked onto the ass end of this particular movie.
It’s been rumored that Gran Torino is going to be the last film Clint Eastwood will star in. For all of us, I hope that there isn’t an ounce of truth to that. He’s still got the chops to carry a film (as his performance here shows) and to not hear his ever gruffier voice would be a great loss. Plus, I’d love to see him go out on a much stronger note than this — one with an ensemble cast worthy of being in the last film of a legend.