Monday, December 29, 2008

Gran Torino (**1/2)

Produced and Directed by Clint Eastwood


If anybody can play tough at the age of 78, it's Clint Eastwood. The man has spent the last forty years spreading out squint-inducing intimidation and that has made him a living legend in more ways than one. If that wasn't enough, in his golden years, Clint has become a first-rate filmmaker, with four Oscar statues to his name. And prolific at that, the man simply never seems to stop working, with two films being released within the last four months alone. Did I forget to mention that he also composes the scores to all his films as well?

So yeah, Eastwood has done more in his seventies than most people will ever do. He was already an icon as an actor, but it's these last couple of years with his work as a director and producer that has made him an absolute giant in film history. So all of this being said, every time Clint makes a film, it is an event. But he seems to have hit a snag as of late. His previous film, Changeling, won raves at Cannes but floundered with American audiences and critics. With his latest film, Gran Torino, Eastwood returns to the screen as an actor, and though he plays beautifully, it seems it has taken away from his job as a filmmaker.

Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a mean, racist Korean War veteran, whose wife has passed away, leaving him alone to sulk in his stubborn, grouchy stupor. His two sons can hardly stand being around him because his old school attitude is so contemptuous of anything progressive that he can't even spare emotion at his wife's funeral. All of Walt's family is just waiting for him to drop so they can scramble together all of his belongings, particularly his prized possession: a mint-conditioned 1972 Gran Torino--a car that his granddaughter has a hot eye for.

Walt is pestered by the community's young priest (Christopher Carley) to go to confession, because supposedly Walt's wife requested it, but Walt dismisses the matter. When he gets a new crop of next door neighbors, he's bothered to see that it is a large Hmong family. 'Why can't the small American towns be for Americans?' Walt thinks. He doesn't care much for his neighbors, nor does he care about any other foreign culture. He spouts off various derogatory phrases aimed at all races, religions, and sexual orientations, and doesn't care one way or another what anybody thinks about it.

His lifestyle is challenged when he is essentially forced into a relationship with the young boy from next door, Thao (Bee Vang). Thao is coaxed by his gang banger cousin to attempt to steal Walt's Gran Torino, but Walt is ready with his loaded rifle. Thao's family--particularly his sister Sue (Abney Her)--are so ashamed by Thao's actions, they do their best to make up with Walt. They invite him over for dinner, and (wouldn't you know) he accepts, and begins to learn about other cultures for a change. He befriends the family, but when the gangs begin to penetrate Thao and Sue's world even further, Walt finds it hard to suppress his usual violent urges.

It's not that Gran Torino is a failure as a film, it's just that while watching Eastwood's latest picture, I found this thought running through my head: "Well, yeah, this guy did make Blood Work AND Space Cowboys." Eastwood is showing a little laziness here. The level of filmmaking isn't anywhere near Unforgiven or Mystic River. His infamous laid-back film shoots are fine when you're working with professional actors like Sean Penn, Morgan Freeman, or Angelina Jolie, but here, dealing with mostly unknowns, the actors look like they could've used a much more sturdy hand behind the reigns, that would hold them more accountable. Most of the Asian-American actors (with the exception of Her), seem truly confused at what their characters are supposed to be doing.

Moreover, I understand the high-wire act that screenwriter Nick Schenk was trying to pull-off within this film, but it never truly finds the perfect balance. We see Walt's relatives, and they are nothing more than selfish people who ignore the old man. Then we hear Walt unleash tongue-lashings on various people that are so maliciously politically incorrect. So, is he a harmed man trying to prove his worth, or is he a mean curmudgeon who is planning to redeem himself? The movie wants him to be both, but it just doesn't work that way.

That being said, I've never seen Clint Eastwood have more fun on the screen than what he's doing here. We can see in his acceptance speeches that he is a rather charming man, but nearly all of his film roles contain him into one-note meanies (we'll forget about Every Which Way But Loose). Here, Eastwood truly grasps the character of Walt and fills him out so completely that we don't seem to care much that he isn't appropriately written. This won't be as remembered as his iconic performances within the Dirty Harry series or the "man with no name" films, but it certainly should be.

By the picture's end, Walt doesn't seem like much more than Dirty Harry: The Retirement Years. Truth be told, Clint is the last of the old school legends. He has the strut of all that John Wayne conservatism, but can still occasionally possess the gentleness of a James Stewart. I say those two particularly because they both shared the political and societal views that Eastwood has. Watching The Searchers for the seventh time the other day, I realized how much Eastwood owed to Wayne as the classic tough guy, anti-hero, but Eastwood is all we have left, and he's doing his best to make his impression even toward the end.

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