Walt Kowalski has just lost his beloved wife at the start of the film. A war vet who worked for decades at the major Ford plant in Detroit, he’s unimpressed with the remnants of his family. His grandchildren are slobs and show no respect for their dead grandmother. His sons are Japanese car-driving yuppies who would rather put him in a retirement home than do the right thing and take care of him. But worst of all are the Hmong neighbors that have moved into Walt’s neighborhood, which used to be made up of Irish and Italian immigrants. Kowalski, who openly insults his neighbors with words like “gook,” “slope,” “egg-roll,” and much, much more, is revolted by what’s become of his neighborhood. Asian and African-American gangs cruise the streets, sparking menace on every corner. It’s the end of an era that men like Kowalski were raised in, and Kowalski isn’t going anywhere, no matter how pissed off he becomes.
Things get complicated when Walt’s neighbor, Thao (Bee Vang), a Hmong immigrant being bullied by his gang-member cousin, attempts to steal his vintage 1972 Gran Torino, as sort of a gang-initiation. Walt breaks up the attempted theft and then steps in when the gang members continually harass Thao and his pretty sister Sue (Ahney Her), kicking one of the gang member’s asses. Thao’s family is deeply dishonored by Thao’s stealing attempt, and is greatly appreciative of Walt confronting the gangbangers who have been bullying Thao and Sue. Thao is ordered to repay Walt in any way that he feels necessary. Initially reluctant, Kowalski slowly warms to Thao, taking him under his wing, and an interesting friendship begins to mount. Without spoiling what happens, it’s no big surprise to reveal that Walt will learn lots about himself as well as his neighbors, and some sort of show-down with the gangsters will occur. How it all plays out I will leave for you to discover. All I will say is that the ending is, in a word, perfect.
One of the many surprises of GRAN TORINO is how funny it is. Yes, the humor tends to be a bit awkward because of the virulent racism that Kowalski spews. But what Schenk’s screenplay gets so right is the anger that a veteran like Kowalski would feel after watching his neighborhood fall into a massive state of spiritual and moral decline. I have no doubt that there is a huge swath of America that resembles what’s on screen in GRAN TORINO. And there is a truth to the film that is at turns biting and deceptively sentimental. Eastwood growls and snarls many of his lines, not as a stunt, but as a way of expressing his inner turmoil and seething rage. The other actors who surround Eastwood do a serviceable job, but the lack of experience on the part of both Vang and Her is obvious at times. This makes for a more natural feeling to some of their scenes, but in others, they are blasted off the screen by Eastwood’s force and power as an actor.
GRAN TORINO is, in the end, a movie about tolerance, change, and respect. It doesn’t speechify, it doesn’t preach too hard to its audience, and while the film feels overly schematic at times, it knows what it wants to say and how to say it. There are a few moments with Kowalski where you peer into the soul of a haunted man; one line of dialogue in particular has resonated with me for the entire week since I saw the film. As the film speeds along to its inevitable climax, one gets the sense that this is the role that Eastwood has been leading up too his entire career. If it truly is the last on-screen performance that we’ll see from him, then he’s picked the right role to end on. GRAN TORINO may not have the epic scope of BENJAMIN BUTTON, the visceral kinks of SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, or the conceptual boldness of SYNECDOCHE, NY, but it’s easily one of the best, most purely entertaining movies of the year. And definitely one of my favorites.