It’s sometimes hard to watch Clint Eastwood on screen if he’s not wearing a poncho or at least a cowboy hat while chewing the end of a cigar.
The image Eastwood has cultivated over the last half century is one of a tough guy – but a guy that’s fair. The characters that he chooses to play may take what they want, but there’s always some sound logic behind it all. That doesn’t make Eastwood a man that’s only played good guys or bad guys, because frequently, there’s no way by which to distinguish one from the other.
And that’s the case with his character in Gran Torino as well.
At the age of 78, for most, it would be a stretch to play a role where you’re main duty is intimidation. But he pulls it off with nothing short of aplomb.
The character he plays, Walt Kowalski, doesn’t have too much of a back story. Walt fought in Korea, he worked at a Ford plant, his wife just died and his two sons are something less than what he expected. But for this film, that’s all we really need.
Given the fact that the neighborhood Walt lives in has seen a population shift to include a great deal of Hmong immigrants, he’s less than enthusiastic about maintaining any sort of relationship with his neighbors, who include a sister and brother. And through a botched heist, the later ends up in Walt’s service.
In a lot of ways, this flick comes off as a comedy - accidentally. Eastwood’s character is given to colorful vulgarity. But if you asked him why he spoke that way, Walt would probably just respond by saying those names, well they’re just names. But in those moments when Walt is letting the epithets fly in mixed company, viewers should be able to find a few laughs.
It’s probably going a bit too far in saying that Walt’s a racist – he ends up befriending the Hmong woman after he finds that their cooking is to his liking. But he does also try to make a man out of his young neighbor.
Explaining how selfless Walt ends up being would give away the end of the film – which was at least a bit surprising. Before we get to that point in the narrative though, Walt confronts various gangsters, Hmong and otherwise. And in each of these encounters, viewers can watch with pleasure as Eastwood seemingly revises his past characters to fit into these situations. He doesn’t turn into Dirty Harry while rescuing his young, female neighbor, but it comes close.
And even if his old, tough guy flicks aren’t necessarily to your liking, this story is pretty modern in it’s examinations of race. Although these incites come sparingly throughout the film, when they pop up, it’s pretty obvious as well as useful to the plot.
This might not be Oscar territory, but Gran Torino is endearing and sweet in ways that a lot of other Eastwood films aren’t. He’s still probably better at glowering into the camera than acting, but he’s come along way since he rode horses in every flick he acted in.