Film Review: GRAN TORINO

Release date: December 12, 2008 (limited), January 9th, 2009 (Nation wide)
Stars: Clint Eastwood, Christopher Carley, Bee Vang, Ahney Her
Director: Clint Eastwood
Written by Nick Schenk, Story by Dave Johannson & Nick Schenk
Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes

As Gran Torino opens, Korean war vet and longtime Ford plant worker Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) has just lost his beloved wife. Walt’s neighbor, a Hmong boy named Thao (Bee Vang), has recently lost his father. There is no reason their paths should cross until Thao is bullied into trying out for his cousin’s gang. His initiation is to steal Walt’s prized ’72 Gran Torino.

Walt scares Thao off with a shotgun and would prefer that be the end of it, but Thao’s mother insists Thao repay Walt by helping with odd jobs around the house. Despite themselves, Walt and Thao develop a bond stronger than the one between Walt and his own grown sons (Brian Haley, Brian Howe) who, like almost everyone around Walt, have yielded to the force of his personality. Only Walt’s parish priest (Christopher Carley) persists in trying to get Walt to open up, because Walt’s wife asked him to try and get Walt to go to Confession.

Gran Torino isn’t easily categorized. It is Kowalski violently laying down the law in his neighborhood. It is a mentoring movie a la The Karate Kid. It is a movie about mortality as Walt is slowing down, succumbing to an unnamed disease causing him to cough up blood. All of these themes are peppered with Walt’s trademark invective, encompassing all races and ethnicities. (He consistently calls Thao “Toad” and Thao’s love interest “Yum-Yum”).

The Asian gang led by Thao’s cousin forms the movie’s major threat. The neighborhood Hmong are afraid to report them to the police. As the movie touches on its various themes, the threat isn’t always felt. The movie’s direction isn’t always clear over almost two hours, but Eastwood keeps a steady-enough hand on the reins.

After being humiliated by Walt a few times, the gang retaliates by raping Thao’s sister (Ahney Her). Thao goes to Walt wanting blood, but Walt has something else in mind, something he prepares for by giving away his dog and finally going to Confession.

Because Walt and Thao are so far apart to begin with, I found it hard to believe the transformation that takes place. I came away thinking if not for Eastwood’s presence and directing touch, I might have downright hated Walt, and the movie might have come off like an afterschool special with profanity and racial invective for flavor.

–Gerald So
For more of Gerald’s thoughts and observations, check out his blog: If you want to know about my Life…