If, as Clint Eastwood has been reported as saying, "Gran Torino" is truly his final acting performance, then Eastwood couldn't have picked a better one for his legion of fans.
"Gran Torino" gives Eastwood fans a little bit of everything Eastwood has offered over the years.
Like the "Dirty Harry" side of Eastwood? It's definitely here.
Prefer the softer, sensitive side of Eastwood? It's here, too.
Maybe you prefer the strong, silent Eastwood? Yep, we get to see that Clint.
Irascible Clint? Check, it's here.
If you were to wrap up every Clint Eastwood performance over the years into one neat, tidy package it would likely look a lot his Walt Kowalski in "Gran Torino."
In "Gran Torino," Eastwood's Kowalski is a newly widowed Korean war veteran living in a rapidly deteriorating urban neighborhood surrounded by Asians, Hispanics, Blacks and others for whom he's had a lifelong distaste.
Kowalski largely keeps to himself, especially after his wife's death. He never really bonded with his two adult sons, and his grandchildren are more intrigued by what they might inherit than their grandfather. When a neighborhood boy, Thao (Bee Vang, in his screen debut), attempts to steal Kowalski's mint condition 1972 Gran Torino as part of a gang initiation, Kowalski becomes more intertwined into his Hmong neighbors than he'd ever imagined. After Kowalski violently confronts the gangbangers, he becomes a hero to his largely Asian neighbors, most of whom desire to live in a decent neighborhood. In particular, Thao's sister Sue (Ahney Her, also in her screen debut) takes a liking to Kowalski after he intervenes on her behalf in a scene made even funnier when one realizes that her wimpy boyfriend in the scene is Eastwood's own, Scott Eastwood.
"Gran Torino" is a good film made better by Eastwood's winning performance. However, I'd also venture to say that "Gran Torino" is ordinary enough that without Eastwood it wouldn't stand a chance at the box-office. The screening I attended was packed, and it was reported that over 100 had to be turned away. While there was a polite smattering of applause at the end of the film, it was pretty clear that "Gran Torino" will live and die on Eastwood's involvement and his pleasingly perceptive and understated performance.
In our world of political correctness gone awry, there are likely to be many who have trouble to adjusting to the dialogue in "Gran Torino," which consists largely of repeated F-bombs and racial slurs. When Thao's family becomes increasingly endangered by the Asian gang who didn't take kindly to being rejected by Thao, Eastwood's Kowalski first goes whupass on the gang only to realize that, much like the wars in which he fought, he may have only made the situation worse.
With "Gran Torino" Eastwood almost seems to be playing mentor to the younger folks including first time actor Bee Vang, who isn't really up to the task, and first-time actress Ahney Her, who is a terrific newcomer with great potential. Additionally, Eastwood gives himself to relatively new screenwriter Nick Schenk. Schenk, who has already received the National Board of Review's 2008 award for Best Original Screenplay, fashions a script that, at least to this writer, feels predictable with dialogue that seems more designed to elicit gasps than actual investment.
There's genuine sentiment for Eastwood to receive his first acting Academy Award for his performance here, a sympathetic gesture much more owing to the far more talented Peter O'Toole than Eastwood. O'Toole has given numerous performances over the years worthy of recognition, yet somehow always falls short. Eastwood? He's always a variation of Eastwood...even if he does manage to bring the many facets of the Eastwood persona into one film. This is easily one of Eastwood's performances, and I wouldn't be particularly bothered by an Oscar nomination. A win, however, would be a travesty to magnificent performances this year from the likes of Sean Penn and others.
The other distraction that keeps the film from achieving greatness is in the performance of young Vang, as a young man who is intelligent and kind but seemingly torn between the straight and narrow path and that which tempts so many young men like him into the gang life. While he picks up considerable steam as the film moves on, he lacks the range needed to pull off this character and in one scene towards the film's end he's downright uncomfortably weak.
Shot in a mere 32 days and released the same year as Eastwood's "Changeling," "Gran Torino" is a rewarding, entertaining film but not worthy of the awards buzz it is receiving and Schenk's script, in particular, is a disappointing selection from the National Board of Review.
It's no secret that the Academy often awards Oscars as much out of sympathy and history as it does merit. My gut feeling tells me that this will be the case with "Gran Torino," a good film from an actor and director who has done much finer work.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic