Gran Torino had me worried at the start. As the opening minutes rolled by, I kept thinking, "This is the last time I see Clint on screen" and it was hard to think otherwise since Eastwood has said it will be his last role as an actor. I wanted Gran Torino to be nothing short of great--of which I was quickly realizing it wasn't up to that level. But, it was Clint Eastwood up there and he was giving one more dose of the quintessential "Eastwood" that has made him a cinematic icon and one of my all-time favorites. Even with Gran Torino's flaws, Clint being Clint is more than enough to make me happy.
Eastwood plays Walt, a newly widowed Detroit autoworker for forty years. He still lives in the same neighborhood despite many changes for the worse in his opinion--run down houses, unkempt yards and lots of Asians and other ethnic groups Walt dislikes. With no relationship with his own family--Walt lives by himself (and his dog), wants to be left alone by neighbors/priest and he likes it that way.
Walt begins to thaw some when he gets entangled in the troubles of the Hmong family next door. This involves taking on some wannabe gangstas who drive around the neighborhood acting and speaking tough. I don't care how old Eastwood is--to see him taking on gangstas with a sneer and the threat of violence feels my heart with pure cinematic joy. It's Clint Eastwood people!
The early portion of Gran Torino is plagued by a clunky start. The story is a little forced , heavy handed and is bogged down by some woeful acting by some of the younger actors (maybe Clint scared the acting right out of them?). Some of this might have been my fault--see the intro. The racial stuff in the film is played for laughs--always dangerous--but was mostly effective in drawing in to Walt's world and to see how he's softened for these people he barely knows.
The film gets better when Walt softens up some and begins to befriend and protect an awkward Hmong kid next door. While predictable, this gives us a connection with the character rather than just seeing him as a simplified, one-note, cranky, bitter, bigoted old man stuck in a buried rage of what he did in his past. Well, he kind of is those things but he has a few gifts left to give that make him redeemable.
If this is Eastwood's last film as an actor--it's not his best but it's still good. Gran Torino is another piece of his cinematic mythology he's been creating for decades. If this is it, Clint has gone out squinty-eyed, bad ass, taking on gang bangers, gun in his hand, knuckles bloody from pummeling some punk kid's face and standing up alone against bad odds because someone has to. Would we have it any other way?
***I saw Gran Torino a second time after I wrote this review and liked it more. I just got to enjoy it instead of worrying how good Eastwood's last role would be. I think I laughed more, was rooting for more vengeance and even moved more than the first viewing.***