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Monday, July 13, 2009


How totally fucking awesome is it that Clint Eastwood has finally reached the point in life where a character he's playing can wander out of his house, aim a rifle at a bunch of deserving punks and snarl, "Get offa my lawn" like the ultimate suburban old man nightmare the guy was born to personify?

In the pantheon of cinematic manliness, few stand taller than my man Clint Eastwood. He appeals across all ethnic and cultural barriers, and is such a motherfucking badass of total coolness that heterosexual men actually didn't mind (much) having to sit through THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY because he was in it (no, he didn't blast Meryl Streep's noggin off that chicken neck of hers with a Colt .45). In fact, unlike the rest of his surviving compatriots in the he-man category, Clint somehow manages to get even cooler the closer he gets to taking the dirt nap.

In GRAN TORINO Eastwood plays crotchety Walt Kowalski, a Korean war vet who could be termed a racist prick (to put it mildly), but instead of portraying him as a one-note asshole stereotype, the film allows us to see a man in his twilight years who has just lost his beloved wife and is now marooned, alone, in a shitty Detroit suburb among an assortment of indigenous ethnic annoyances (blacks 'n' 'Ricans). While fending off the well-intentioned efforts of a fresh-from-the-seminary priest to get him to go to confession, Walt's also dealing with the remaining douchebags who comprise his family, including an avaricious twat of a grand-daughter and the sons he never really got to know (and vice-versa), one of whom goes along with his wife's plans to try and convince Walt to move into a retirement village so they can get their greedy mitts on his house.

Walt's annoyance factor jumps a few notches when a Hmong family — look it up, but that group includes folks from Vietnam, Thailand Laos — named Vang Lor moves in next door, dredging up memories from his wartime experiences that he'd rather not think about. Openly hostile and unashamedly racist in his addressing of his new neighbors, Walt soon discovers that the teenage boy of the family, Thao (Bee Vang, turning in one of the most refreshingly normal and realistic portrayals of a teenager seen in ages), is being harassed to join a group of Hmong gangbangers lead by the kid's utter asshole of a cousin, Spider (Doua Moua). In order to gain admission into the gang, the unwilling Thao is tasked with stealing Walt's prized 1972 Gran Torino, but the kid's such a pussy and a fuckup that Walt catches him and puts the fear of God into the lad. The attempted theft only pisses Walt off even more (if such a thing is possible), and when he drives the gangbangers away from his neighbors' house with the business end of his well-maintained service rifle, he earns the gang's enmity...

The excellent Ahney Her as Sue.

Following the act of driving away the gangbanger trash, Walt finds himself an unwitting and unwilling neighborhood hero and in no time finds his front porch festooned with gifts of food and plants. Matters only escalate when Walt saves Thao's sister, Sue (the excellent Ahney Her), from a pack of verminous teenage "spooks" and Sue coerces him into coming over to her house for a huge family dinner. Walt's still a prick when he first meets the Vang Lors but he soon warms to them, finding himself loving the women's cooking and being genuinely shocked to find that he has more in common with a family of total strangers from an alien culture than he does with his own flesh and blood relatives.

A reluctant Walt gets down with the Hmong culture.

In the wake of that eye-opening encounter Walt is still an irascible, foul-mouthed old fuck, but he takes a genuine and avuncular liking to Sue and later Thao, once the kid is forced to do chores for Walt in order to make up for him trying to steal the Gran Torino and thus shaming the family. The relationship between the kids and Walt is both sincere and an education for all involved, especially Thao and the old man once the two begin to get to know each other and bond. Seeing that Thao is in every way a "Gook pussy," Walt endeavors to man the boy up by getting him a construction job and teaching the kid how real men speak to one another, i.e. loads of good-natured profanity, playful ethnic denigration, and general kvetching about what goes on in their daily existence. (As a guy who's often been given shit for not being "aggressive" enough and kinda too in touch with my feminine side, I could totally relate and this scene made me glad to be alive.)

Great moments in cinematic masculinity: "Polack prick" Walt (Clint Eastwood) teaches "Gook pussy" Thao (Bee Vang) the art of how men speak to one another, with an able and foul-mouthed assist from "Guinea Wop" barber, Martin (John Carroll Lynch).

But before we start thinking this is some "after-school special" about growing up and ethnic tolerance and that kind of shit and forget that this is a Clint Eastwood movie, Spider and the gangbangers assault Thao for defying them, spurring Walt to kick the living shit out of one of their number at gunpoint and issue a stern warning about not bothering the kid anymore. Then it gets ugly...

At that point GRAN TORINO could have gone straight into Harry Callahan territory and very few people would have complained if Walt had a teeth-gritted showdown with the evil Hmong. But that predictable move would have sunk everything that Eastwood had achieved thus far in the narrative as both a director and as a character we could believe in as a human being, so I say the way things work out shows a great respect for the audience's intelligence — and reality in general — and features a coda that's simultaneously the most verbally-offensive yet hilarious thing I've seen onscreen up to this point into the too-politically-correct early-2000's. I greatly enjoyed GRAN TORINO, perhaps the most I've enjoyed a drama since REDBELT, so put this gem of a "little" picture on your Netflix queue and show Clint the love he deserves.


Deacon Blue said...

Even as a longtime Eastwood fan, I had my reservations when we rented this that it would turn out to be a case of Clint getting old, losing his grip a bit and becoming 180 degrees removed from PC just to vent his spleen or something.

I was so glad to see he hasn't lost his mind and found a very nuanced movie in which all the bigotry makes sense and you get what seem like real humans instead of cookie cutter characters.

And the resolution of the conflict? Damn, that got me by surprise, but it made so much damn sense, and showed Walt to be not only a much deeper man than he seems, but so much smarter as well.

Definitely one of Eastwood's best efforts.

Steve Buccellato said...

Great review, Steve! I was less-impressed with some of the kids' acting, but I really enjoyed the film. Your take is dead-on.