From his early days as a Western TV and movie star to his “Dirty Harry” cop dramas to his more philosophical turns in movies like “Million Dollar Baby,” tough guy-style violence has been Clint Eastwood’s primary thematic calling card.
Earlier movies, especially the “Dirty Harry” ones, tended to treat swift, unmerciful vigilante violence as a practical way to cut the Gordian knot of due process and punish bad guys sooner, rather than later. But starting in the 1990s with “Unforgiven,” that message became tempered with the idea that violence is a temporary solution that begets more violence, destroying not only physical being, but also the metaphysical being of its practitioners.
“Gran Torino” is of the latter type. Eastwood directs and stars as Walt Kowalski, a newly widowed veteran who wants to spend his life’s waning right where he spent its waxing: in his own old house, in his own old neighborhood. Along with his wife, Walt’s kids and his old neighbors have left him to sit on the porch, grumbling about the old days.
Walt also alienates people with his old-school brand of quaint, 1950s-style racism that is highly anachronistic, but still insulting. When ethnic minorities start populating his Detroit neighborhood, Walt keeps to himself, and doesn’t get involved with the “zipperheads,” as he calls them.
Then one night, young next-door-neighbor, Thao (Bee Vang), has a scuffle with his cousin’s gang. The gang enlisted him to steal Walt’s prized 1972 Gran Torino, which Thao failed to do. After a pair of Walt’s garden gnomes are broken, he drives off the gang members with his service rifle. Naturally, the gang swears revenge.
For his act of heroism, the Southeast Asian neighbors befriend Walt. Sue (Ahney Her), Thao’s sister, takes Walt under her wing, introducing him to the neighborhood he’s been trying to ignore.
Walt, Thao and Sue establish a constructive friendship. Unfortunately, vengeful gangs rarely fail to address slights to their dignity, and whatever peace Walt finds among his new friends is short-lived.
While “Gran Torino” is well-intentioned and could have conveyed a profound, if slightly predictable, message of cultural tolerance, personal salvation and general anti-violence, the job is mucked up by scriptwriter Nick Schenk, whose most prominent credit to date is “Factory Accident Sex” (aka “The Best of Dr. Sphincter”). Schenk’s sense of narrative structure is choppy and amateurish, and his dialogue is often as wooden as Walt’s front porch. Schenk’s love of genre clich