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Gran Torino

Movie title: Gran Torino (B+) (2008)
Grade: B+ (3 ½ stars) Recommended!
Rated: R
Summation: Disgruntled Korean War vet Walt Kowalski sets out to reform his neighbor, a young Hmong teenager.
Spoilers ahead: No

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After all these years, Eastwood is still at it…toting guns and scaring the tar out of everybody with that villainous stare of his that could quite possibly intimidate Hercules. In Gran Torino, Eastwood’s character Walt Kowalski is nowhere near pleasant. He’s downright offensive. He’s a cantankerous old racist with a trademark low-pitched growl. He’s a Korean War veteran and a retired Ford assembly line worker. Having just buried his wife, he’s alone now—mean as ever and alone. He’s not close to his family, much less the “chink” neighbors that moved in next door.

The story begins at the start of the movie, but it doesn’t really begin until Walt saves the life of a young gang member initiate, a Hmong teen Thao Vang Lor (Bee Vang), who lives next door and is being chastised by the thugs who recruited him for failing to steal Walt’s car, a 1972 Gran Torino. The gun-wielding Walt is shown gratitude in being offered food and other gifts for his thoughtfulness.

But Walt didn’t do it to be nice. He did it because he wanted those “gooks” off of his lawn. You can just hear the love as he confronts the leader of the Uzi-packing gang with a shotgun pointed right in his face: “We used to stack f#cks like you five feet high in Korea and use you for sandbags.”

Though not at first, he finally begins to be won over by the affections of his Asian neighbors, which leads to an unlikely friendship developing between he and the family, particularly with Thao. What gets off to a melodramatic start gets much better as the film moves on. The weak dialogue and contrived scenes that begin the film give way to a well-fortified plot. You get to know the characters, and the movie grows into a great story.

None too surprisingly, Eastwood fits his role like a glove. Tell me who but Eastwood could boast such a mean-looking mug? There are good performances in the film, of note is Christopher Carley “Father Janovich,” but the best would have to be Ahney Her as Sue Lor, the cute little spitfire who first reaches out to the old man who so hates those “zipperheads.” I liked everything about her. She and Eastwood stole the show.

People love flawed heroes. Underneath those rough exteriors are sometimes found reservoirs of goodness. That’s what makes the character of Walt Kowalski, a stone-cold racist who spews out harrowing hate-speech, so engaging. His obnoxious remarks make him that much more fun to watch and all the more satisfying to see in his walk towards the light of redemption.

Walt has seen the misery of taking lives before. He’s been to hell and back many times. The old familiar faces of the white, middle-class neighbors he was used to seeing have all died off or moved away. And now gangs fight for control of his neighborhood. No way he’ll back down. It’s war!

Gran Torino is about redemption, but it’s really about friendship. Anyone who understands bad family dynamics should see it, as should anyone who wants to see more of the depthless human capacity for love. Much of the way through, I was reminded of Unforgiven. There too Eastwood played a character that lost a saintly wife before undergoing a personal transformation. But here, the change is positive, socially and soteriologically.

The uneasiness of ethnic differences with the neighbors, an adversarial relationship with Walt’s wife’s former priest, a desire to help around the house next door, a relationship with a dirty-mouthed barber, retaliation-after-retaliation from the gang, these things brought together in Gran Torino a plethora of emotions. This one makes the cut. And I liked Eastwood’s song at the end as the credits rolled. B+

(JH)

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Director: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Clint Eastwood “Walt Kowalski,” Christopher Carley “Father Janovich,” Bee Vang “Thao Vang Lor,” Ahney Her “Sue Lor,” Brian Haley “Mitch Kowalski,” Geraldine Hughes “Karen Kowalski,” Dreama Walker “Ashley Kowalski,” Brian Howe “Steve Kowalski,” John Carroll Lynch “Barber Martin,” William Hill “Tim Kennedy,” Brooke Chia Thao “Vu,” Chee Thao “Grandma,” Choua Kue “Youa,” Scott Eastwood “Trey”
Genre: Drama

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