Gran Torino is sort of what Rush Hour might have looked like if Brett Ratner had balls and comedic sensibility. Which is to say that it’s a culture-clash action-comedy that isn’t particularly realistic and paints with a pretty broad brush most of the time, but it’s also funny, cathartic, and above all, entertaining as hell. Who knew Clint Eastwood had such a gift for comedy? I can’t remember the last time I missed this many lines because I was laughing so hard.
Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, the ultimate curmudgeon, a recently-widowed Korean War vet with a bunch of spoiled weiner kids and a house in a decaying suburb that’s long since been taken over by ethnic types, for whom Walt reserves at least four growls and three ethnic slurs. Eastwood is beyond over the top but it works, because there’s just something lovable about a straight-talking old man who thinks everyone in the world is a pussy, a foreigner, or some combination of the two. When Kowalski’s dead wife’s snot-nosed pasty ginger priest comes to take Walt’s confession (it was his wife’s dying wish), Walt calls him “an overeducated 27-year-old virgin who likes to hold the hands of superstitious old ladies and promise them everlasting life.”
After the funeral, we meet Walt’s Hmong neighbors the Lors, their pretty, friendly teenage daughter Sue, and their awkward, gentle son Thau. Though he only wants to go to school and not be bothered, Thau endures daily harassment at the hands of both cartoonishly unrealistic Latino gangs and their cartoonishly unrealistic Hmong counterparts, led by Thau’s cousin, who really wants Thau to be in his gang because in movies and commercials, people who do drugs and join gangs will beat you up if you don’t do drugs and join gangs with them. After much coercion, Thau finally agrees to join his cousin’s gang (his cousin whose tough-guy façade never comes close to masking his unintentionally effeminate mannerisms), his initiation into which will be to steal his neighbor Walt’s prize possession: the mint-condition 1972 Ford Gran Torino he keeps in his garage. The heist goes sour and Thau almost gets killed when Eastwood brings along his M-1 service rifle to investigate the noise downstairs. He busts it out again a few days later when Thau gets beaten up for his lousy thiefsmanship and the melee spills onto Eastwood’s lawn. Sue comes over a few days later to thank Walt for saving Thau, to which Walt replies, “I didn’t save anybody, I was just trying to keep a horde of jabbering gooks off my lawn.”
In every scene, Eastwood’s spot-on delivery and prickly, un-PC one-liners more than make up for contrived situations and ridiculous characters. He’s like Don Rickles, if Don Rickles was serious and could kick your ass. In another scene, Sue walks home from school with a boy, the well-worn Hollywood wigger caricature, when they start getting harassed by group of black guys hanging out on a corner. It isn’t enough for the stereotypical black guys hanging out on a corner to shout stuff at the proverbial girl just trying to walk home, they have to take their harassment to a physical level until it seems a gang rape is imminent. And it isn’t enough for the wigger to just talk street and wear his hat backwards, he has to call the black guys bro and try really hard to act like he’s down with them. But then Eastwood drives by, asks “Hey, what are you spooks up to?”, breaks up the gang rape, delivers his monologue on being “that guy you shouldn’t have messed with”, and suddenly the very-special-episode-of-Mr.-Belvedere vibe the scene had for a second there all seems worth it.
A lot of people are going around calling this movie racist. While it’s true that Walt leaves few slur stones unturned and that the racial insults are some of the funniest parts of the movie, I think there’s more going on here than simply the joy of hearing Clint Eastwood say “gook”, although admittedly, that is pretty awesome. If there’s a message here, and I admit, you may have to squint, it’s that true understanding isn’t about avoiding naughty words and taking a hard line towards race jokes at your bi-weekly trust-find hippie coffee shop book club, it’s about actually talking to your neighbors, and seeing people as people. People forget, the race jokes tend to flow freely when you’re friends with someone, hence, those “hurtful words” might not be the source of bigotry, nor avoiding them its cure.
Another theme of the film is the value of building shit. Nobody seems to know how to fix mechanical devices these days, and one of the main ways in which Walt and Thau bond is through Walt teaching Thau about tools, construction, etc. Something that doesn’t get talked about often enough is that in losing the kind of manufacturing jobs like Walt had at the Ford plant to overseas, we’ve raised a generation of guys like me who can’t tell their asshole from a butter knife. A generation of pussies, as Clint might say. But I don’t think it’s being overly old school to say that a man feels more like a man that can fix his own drain clogs. As long he doesn’t spontaneously start enjoying Tim Allen, God that guy sucks.
All in all, Gran Torino was shot in just 27 days and at times it shows. Bee Vang’s (Thau) acting vacillates between solid and awful, and the gangbangers’ ad-libbing is cringe-inducingly painful. And minus points for not dropping the N-bomb. Leaving out the mother of all racial slurs in the midst of all the others only makes it that much more then elephant in the room – when let’s be honest, it’s just a word. But despite a stumble or two and all the film’s dated Hollywood touches, this Eastwood performance is one for the vault.