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"Gran Torino"

January 11, 2009 - Ken Womack
Gran Torino ****

Nobody plays a world-weary loner like Clint Eastwood. Nobody.

Gran Torino stars Eastwood as Walt Kowalski, an aging Korean War veteran and recent widower. He’s also a retired Ford autoworker. Back in 1972, Walt set the steering column on his prized possession—the Gran Torino that he lovingly maintains.

To say that Walt lives in the past is a considerable understatement. He is still haunted by his daunting memories from the war, and he has become bigoted and crotchety in his sunset years—so much so that he can scarcely begin to tolerate the Asian family that moves in next door.

Things come to a head when young Thao (Bee Vang) is conned by a posse of Asian gang-bangers into stealing Walt’s Gran Torino as his initiation. Walt catches Thao in the act, and the boy’s family insists that he work for Walt as his penance.

Meanwhile, Walt befriends Sue (Ahney Her), Thao’s older and much wiser sister, whom the war vet affectionately refers to as the Dragon Lady. In all of his years as one of Hollywood’s greatest character actors—playing tough guy after grizzled tough guy—Eastwood has never really met his match. Yet in Gran Torino, Sue goes toe-to-toe with Dirty Harry, and she comes up aces.

In a protracted subplot, Walt finds himself hounded rather mercilessly by Father Janovich (Christopher Carley), the local parish priest who promised Walt’s late wife that he’d keep tabs on him—perhaps even goad him into going to confession for the first time in decades. As with the Asian family next door, Walt finds it difficult to fathom Father Janovich, much less tolerate him. But what makes both relationships interesting is the manner in which the other party comes to earn Walt’s respect—and, when the time comes, much more indeed.

There are hundreds of ways in which Gran Torino might have gone wrong and made a misguided turn into the dismal land of melodrama. Yet the fact that this never quite happens is a great testament to Eastwood’s skill as an actor and a director. Eastwood understands that Gran Torino is much more than a big-screen civics lesson about the value of diversity. It’s about harnessing our courage for change, and when the signal moment comes, making it mean something.


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