Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino is a comfortable film that deals with uncomfortable themes, never taking the time to get comfortable with itself. Once again taking a common genre of Hollywood film and turning it over on its head, Eastwood directs himself as Walt Kowalski, an old Korean war vet who growls a whole lot at everyone, his family included. After his wife dies, Walt watches a slew of Hmong immigrants move in next door (and all over the neighborhood for that matter), muttering to himself literally every racist Asian slur known to man in the process. Add on to that two rather ungrateful sons and a persistent baby-faced priest looking to get a confession out of Walt, and you’ve got conflict. And I didn’t even mention the Asian gangs that come into to play. Soon Eastwood becomes involved with his neighbors, against his will, when their quiet son Thao attempts to steal Walt’s 1972 Gran Torino (he does it for gang-related reasons). As serious as all of this sounds, however, this movie is funny; probably the funniest Eastwood’s been in a long time (Space Cowboys does not count as funny, by the way). Walt’s racism is so over-the-top it becomes a gimmick. Unfortunately, the gimmickry within the screenplay does not stop there. Not by a long shot. Written by newcomer Nick Schenck, the dialogue is brutally simple and self-explanatory. Any visual confirmation of an emotion is quickly confirmed with a vocal confirmation. It becomes irritating fast. The acting is also hit-or-miss. When Eastwood delivers, the scenes become something that should be taught in acting school. However, sometimes the growling becomes too much, and Eastwood does little more than mock the Dirty Harry image. While this is most likely his intention, it does not belong with the rest of the film. Or maybe it does. I couldn’t tell you because the screenplay is all over the place. It plays like Schenck had a great story (something like The Karate Kid with character development, back story and an acknowledgment of prejudice) and let it get away from him. Some scenes are incredibly forced, such as the one in which Sue, the Hmong neighbors’ spunky daughter, is getting roughed up by three black men and Walt just happens to drive up and notice it at the moment it’s happening, saving the day. This happens more than once in the film, so keep the eye-rolling to a minimum.
All this being said, the film is enjoyable to watch, mostly for those great Eastwood scenes, which come around every 20 minutes or so. The acting around Eastwood isn’t too bad, except for Bee Vang’s turn as Thao, which is so unsure and robotic that it nearly derails the entire film. Eastwood, for me, is a hot-and-cold director whose levels of hotness and coldness are way above most other directors. This one is cooler than usual for the old-timer, but still better than your average Hollywood fare.