Korean war veteran Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) is everybody’s angry, racist grandpa crossed-bred with gun-toting Mr. Strickland from Back to the Future. His wife has recently died and he’s the last white person left in an old neighborhood which has long since been repopulated with immigrants. We never see Walt’s life with his wife, but he speaks of her with reverence.
Clint Eastwood has hinted that his role as Walt Kowalski — a gun-toting widower living in Detroit near the struggling Ford auto plant and even nearer to the Asian immigrants crowding him out of his run-down, racially mixed hood — may be his last role as an actor. Eastwood, 78, has two Oscars for directing Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby, and two nominations for starring in them. But an Oscar for acting? Not yet. Get busy, Academy.
I don’t think Eastwood will ever turn down a juicy role. But Gran Torino, named after the 1972 car that Walt garages and polishes like a symbol of his idealized past, is a humdinger of a valedictory. Directed by Eastwood from a script by newcomer Nick Schenk, Gran Torino is Eastwood’s hell-raising salute to every hardass he’s ever played. Cranky Walt often communicates in a growl that sounds like a demon in need of an exorcist (wait till you hear Eastwood rasp a few bars of the film’s memorable title song). Walt squints at the Hmong family next door, especially Thao (Bee Vang), a teen with a rustler’s eye on the Torino. Thao’s smart-mouth sister, Sue (the wonderful Ahney Her), can defrost Walt with a beer and food that isn’t his usual beef jerky, but only Walt’s dog, Daisy, dares to get too close. Cocking his rifle when gangbangers intrude on his territory, Walt snarls, “Get. Off. My. Lawn.” Terrific stuff. And it gets better when Walt confronts some hoods playing grabass with Sue: “Ever notice how you come across somebody once in a while that you shouldn’t have messed with? That’s me.”
And that “me” isn’t just Walt. It’s the Man With No Name taking aim in those spaghetti Westerns. It’s Dirty Harry Callahan asking, “Do you feel lucky, punk?” It’s William Munny, from Unforgiven, digging deep to note, “It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. You take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.” It’s even Frankie Dunn, the fight manager from Million Dollar Baby, who knows “tough ain’t enough.”
Tough has never been enough for Eastwood. It’s a credit to the film’s twist ending that Walt exorcises his demons without easy violence or bogus redemption. A lifetime in movies runs through this prime vintage Eastwood performance. You can’t take your eyes off him. The no-frills, no-bull Gran Torino made my day.
Written by Luca Aquilanti