Clint Eastwood, channeling Dirty Harry, plays a cantankerous, racist war hero whose once-affluent neighborhood becomes home to Asian immigrants.
The car is a beauty, sleek, powerful and bulging with muscle, a shining representation of what its owner and America used to be.
Seeing it fills you with nostalgia and a cavernous regret. ``They sure don’t build them like they used to,'' you say to yourself, speaking both of the car, a mint condition 1972 Ford Gran Torino, and its not so well preserved co-star, Clint Eastwood.
In ``Gran Torino,'' you long to turn back the clock to the day the car was built, a time before Watergate, a time before oil shortages, a time when Detroit proved art and functionality could coexist. Oh, yes, and a time when Eastwood was Harry Callahan, a man who never apologized for his sexism, racism or liberal use of excessive force.
Blow their heads off and answers questions later. That was Dirty Harry’s motto. Why use words when a gun speaks more loudly?
Yes, those were the days. Or were they?
I know a few blacks, Hispanics and Southeast Asians who would disagree. They were choked off and dying at the hands of white America, especially the latter, whose blood flowed like rivers through Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam in 1972.
In watching this fine movie, you sense Eastwood, the actor and the director, struggling to come to terms with the past and the present, both personally and on a much larger global scale.
As cantankerous war hero Walt Kowalski, a man who served his country on both the front lines in Korea and the assembly line in Detroit for more than 50 years, Eastwood gives one of his most fearless performances, spewing racial epithets and complaining about just about everything from the loss of chivalry and manners to his spoiled, ungrateful children.
Yes, Dirty Harry has morphed into Grumpy Old Walt. But he still packs plenty of firepower, both with that trademark squinty-eyed stare and the M1 rifle he wisely keeps close while watching his once affluent neighborhood be overrun by hordes of Hmong (pronounced mung), the Asian hill people who fled to the U.S. after the fall of South Vietnam.
Walt despises them almost as much as he despises himself for a past misdeed, especially now that his beloved Dorothy (``the finest woman that ever lived'') is gone and he and his dog Daisy sit on the front porch watching ``gooks and gangs'' trashing HIS America.
It will come as a surprise to no one, especially in this age of political correctness, that Walt will mend his racist ways, maybe even warm to the Hmong family next door. But Eastwood fills Walt with so much subtext about aging and family that it proves more revelatory than you have a right to expect.
Watching Eastwood chip away at Walt’s crusty heart is not just moving, it’s hilarious, especially when Walt pulls out the old M1 and orders members of a local Hmonk gang to ``get off of my lawn'' in the exact same tone and inflection that he said ``make my day'' 37 years ago.
He’s particularly adept at playing the proverbial fish out of water, comically trying to grasp the Hmong culture and traditions, which are beautifully portrayed throughout the movie.
As director, Eastwood fluidly blends the lighter moments with the decidedly dramatic, as Walt bravely carries on a running battle with the members of the Hmong gang attempting to lure his shy, studious neighbor Thao (Bee Vang) into their ranks. Acts of vigilantism that instantly make Walt a hero to the neighborhood in general and Thao’s older sister, Sue (Ahney Her), in particular.
The beauty of the film is in how it redefines the meaning of family once Walt discovers he has more of a kinship with the Hmong than his two sons.
Eastwood and his two young talented Hmong costars, neither of which ever acted before, sell it all with conviction and a strong sense of realism, even when Nick Schenk’s script grows a tad preposterous.
No one, though, outshines the title character, Walt’s prized 1972 Gran Torino, which he helped build 36 years ago. At first, it’s just another cherry hotrod. But as the movie progresses, it become more and more representative of Walt, who like the car, has spent much of his life veiled and locked away sheltered from the outside world.
Sounds a lot like America, doesn’t it? And like Walt, we’re now paying a price for that isolation, and will continue to if we don’t put an end to xenophobia and racism.
That’s the philosophy that fuels ``Gran Torino,'' but its Eastwood who makes it combustible, grudgingly proving that even Dirty Harry has a heart.
GRAN TORINO (R for language and violence) Cast includes Clint Eastwood, Bee Vang and Ahney Her. Directed by Clint Eastwood.
The Patriot Ledger