By Rene Rodriguez, The Miami Herald
Walt Kowalski, the protagonist of Gran Torino, should be an impossible man to like. A racist, judgmental, foul-tempered loner and recent widower, Walt seems to hate everything about the world (and everyone in it) except for his aging Labrador, his beloved Pabst Blue Ribbon and the mint-condition 1972 Gran Torino parked in his driveway.
A retired auto worker and Korean War veteran, Kowalski’s favorite activity is to sit on his porch, drink his beer and stare at his car (just stare at it; he never actually drives it). Irascible to a fault, Walt literally growls like a junkyard dog when he’s displeased, which is often. And when a Hmong family moves in next door, his nostrils flare as if he were smelling something bad. ”Just keep your hands off my dog,” he snarls when they invite him over for a barbecue.
Even Walt’s grown children can’t stand him, and the same would normally go for the audience, except that Walt is played by Clint Eastwood, which automatically makes you love him. In Gran Torino, which he also directed, Eastwood is playing a caricature — even Archie Bunker had finer shadings than Walt — that is given dimension and a not inconsiderable amount of humor by the actor’s screen persona.
The themes the actor has consistently explored in front of and behind the camera — machismo, masculinity, duty, honor, violence — instantly become a part of Walt’s DNA simply because Eastwood is in the role. And gradually, as the plot of Gran Torino (written by Nick Schenk) unfolds, the character becomes less of a cartoon. Set in a crumbling Detroit suburb where white Americans have, much to Walt’s displeasure, become the minority, the movie focuses on the father-son bond that develops between the old coot and Thao (Bee Vang), the good-natured, studious teenager he catches trying to steal his car as part of a gang-initiation ritual.
On the surface, Gran Torino is utterly predictable: You know Thao is somehow going to manage to soften Walt’s crusty exterior (although he’ll never be able to stop him from calling him ”zipperhead”) and Walt is going to play a crucial role in helping the boy choose the right path in life.
But details, some subtler than others, give the straightforward Gran Torino so much resonance. Eastwood the director is at his best when telling simple stories (Million Dollar Baby, Unforgiven, A Perfect World) whose fable-like exteriors are loaded with meaning, and Gran Torino is about the inner redemption of a man who had given up on everything, including himself.
Mostly, though, the movie is supremely entertaining — and often hilarious. Watching Walt’s pleased expression during a family gathering as a gaggle of Hmong women coo over him, keeping his plate stacked high with food, is as funny as an entire sequence in which Walt tries to ”man up” Thao and show him how real men behave.
Gran Torino ultimately takes a tragic turn, as Eastwood’s movies have almost always done since his orangutan-flick days, but it ends on an optimistic note, with Eastwood himself crooning the title song over the end credits. It’s never too late — not even for Walt Kowalski.
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Bee Vang, Ahney Her, Christopher Carley, Brian Haley, Geraldine Hughes
Director: Clint Eastwood
Screenwriter: Nick Schenk
Producers: Clint Eastwood, Robert Lorenz, Bill Gerber
A Warner Bros. Pictures release. Running time: 116 minutes. Vulgar language, violence, adult themes. Playing at area theaters.