‘Gran Torino’: A complete professional at work

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Wednesday, December 24, 2008 12:58pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

And to think people were describing Clint Eastwood as craggy and leathery 20 years ago. In “Gran Torino,” the latest offering of the 78-year-old star’s career, he wears his age like a proud badge of survival.

Of course, it helps that even at 78, Eastwood looks like a chip off Mount Rushmore. In “Gran Torino,” which he also directed, Eastwood uses his well-worn image to shrewd effect.

He plays Walt Kowalski, a widower and retired auto worker who’s lived in the same Detroit suburb for decades. A casual bigot of long standing, Walt is none too happy at the way the neighborhood has become racially mixed, saving his special irritation for the Hmong refugee family that lives next door.

Once we meet the teenagers from that family — spunky daughter Sue (Ahney Her) and her quiet brother Thao (Bee Vang) — we can guess that Walt will let himself soften a little.

And when an Asian gang begins to threaten the Hmong family, we get just a hint that Walt has the flame of Dirty Harry somewhere inside him.

Actually, it’s more complicated than that. Like so many of Eastwood’s recent films as director, “Gran Torino” carefully looks at the effects of violence — especially revenge — and finds it damaging and counterproductive.

But more than that, “Gran Torino” (named for Walt’s beloved car) is a relaxed and surprisingly funny slice of Americana. Nick Schenk’s screenplay lays out its ideas in big, broad chunks: The bad guys are terrible, some lessons are doled out, and the language is colorful.

As for Walt, we can see his character arc stretching out in a predictable curve from the first couple of scenes. Thanks to Eastwood’s easy-touch skills as director, this is enjoyable to watch, despite a few glaring plot contrivances (especially the apparent absence of a police force that might relieve Walt of his duties as a justice-keeper).

The old-school humor helps, and so does the persuasive re-creation of the rundown neighborhood, the kind of art direction that doesn’t draw attention to itself but is nevertheless just as difficult as a showier period piece.

But the real pleasures here come from watching an actor who knows all about his status as a movie icon. Eastwood has tweaked that image repeatedly through his career, and he’s hinted this might be his last spin in front of the camera, as though he’s getting too old for this. Maybe, but in “Gran Torino” he still looks like he could hold his own in a street-corner throwdown — not too shabby for a near-octogenarian.

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