Long before it opened, Gran Torino gave movie buffs plenty to watch -- the hue and cry over the news that this film would be Clint Eastwood's final performance as an actor, the (erroneous) rumor that it was a return to the screen for "Dirty" Harry Callahan, the puzzling and perfunctory trailer, with Eastwood growling "Get off my lawn!" at a group of young intruders, the news that New York's National Board of Review named the film to its Top Ten List and saw fit to give Clint Eastwood honors for Best Actor and Nick Schenk the award for Best Original Screenplay. All of this was fun to watch -- and, to be blunt, more interesting to watch than Gran Torino itself actually is. Gran Torino is not actively bad -- and there are parts of it which are actually quite good -- but it is not, in fact a film that would be worthy of any kind of enduring honor or long-term interest without the considerable power of Eastwood's myth nudging it into the zone of contention. Gran Torino is, bluntly, a pretty good film -- sleek and brawny like the title car, but a little clumsy on the corners and with no small amount of knock in its dramatic engine.
Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a retired autoworker and Korean War veteran dealing -- or, alternately, not dealing -- with the recent death of his wife. Walt's a fairly hard-bitten man, stern and cold and distant. He doesn't want his family to reach out to him, and they don't quite know how; his Michigan neighborhood has become a Hmong community in the past few years, their busy and shabby homes in stark contrast to the tidy silence of his house. Walt's interaction with his neighbors is limited to glaring at them; as a group heads in for a dinner, we see him grunt: "How many swamp rats can you fit in one house, anyhow?" Walt's home is his castle; his 1974 Gran Torino, which he helped build, his prize. One of the neighboring youths, Thao (Bee Vang) is told to steal the car by the local Hmong gang as his initiation; Walt, hearing the break-in attempt, is out the door with a rifle in a flash. Walt not only thwarts the robbery, but he also stops the gang when they come back to make reprisals against Thao for his failure; soon, Walt's a reluctant hero, a mentor to the disgraced, repentant Thao, a friend to his sassy older sister Sue (Ahney Her) ... and a target.
It's unusual when you can credit the praiseworthy parts of a film to one person and lay blame for the flawed elements of it with the same person, but that's exactly what happens in Gran Torino. Eastwood the director is, as ever, a master technician -- his shots are simple and clean, his construction is plain-spoken and simple, his production design immaculate and yet lived-in. At the same time, Eastwood has not exactly been a sure and steady steward of story in his latest films. Million Dollar Baby is irredeemably flawed; Blood Work turned a fine thriller novel into an off-the-rack TV movie; Flags of Our Fathers a noble, well-intentioned and slightly simplistic widescreen epic. Gran Torino could have done with a little more shape and subtlety instead of growls and glares. On a performance level, Eastwood is as sure and steady and easy to watch as he's always been -- the gruff timber of his voice, the ease of his way, the micro-millimeter calibrations of his sneer and squint. If one thing hurts Eastwood's performance as Walt, it's the unavoidable fact that it feels like a performance -- as Walt stumbles, staggers and spouts racist invective in his way through the world, you're constantly conscious of watching a star give a performance. If another director had taken the reins here, maybe Eastwood would have been guided -- or compelled -- into giving a slightly more invested performance, but our enthusiasm for watching Walt doesn't come because Walt's a three-dimensional, fully-realized character and we understand where his traditions, beliefs and ingrained racism come from; it's because we're enjoying watching Eastwood be so "naughty," as if we were snickering at the sight of a favorite uncle telling a dirty joke.
Gran Torino also includes a few easy outs built into the story -- which won't be discussed at greater length for fear of spoiling the film -- but they're also fairly obvious. And even without those easy outs, the storytelling's fairly obvious. The second Walt tells the priest his wife, on her deathbed, implored to get Walt to confession, Father Janovich (Christopher Carley) that Walt considers him " ... an over-educated 27-year-old virgin ..." who " ... peddles eternity to superstitious old women ...", we know Walt will end up in the confessional booth before film's end; as soon as Walt observes bitterly that "I have more in common with these gooks than with my own spoiled, rotten family," we know that will turn out to be the case. (Part of me can't help but imagine what the great director Samuel Fuller -- a Korean War vet, who made real and raw films about war and regret and shame and race -- could have done with Gran Torino's script and star.) Gran Torino is a curdled mess, politically -- it carries the ultimate message that you should get to know individuals in an ethnic group before beating the bad ones to a pulp with your bare hands -- a weird mix of hollow liberalism and crowd-pleasing xenophobia. Gran Torino isn't a bad film, but it's not really worthy of acclaim, either; Eastwood's had far better vehicles for his considerable talents behind and in front of the camera, but considering that Gran Torino's heading towards the sunset of Eastwood's acting career, that's a good enough reason to watch it go by.