- Rated R
- Buy the Blu-ray
All photos © Warner Bros.
Reviewed by Jason Zingale
f Clint Eastwood is to be believed, “Gran Torino” will mark the final acting role of his career. The last thing you’d expect, then, is for his onscreen swan song to be a comedy – especially in a film that is a dramatic thriller at heart – but that’s exactly what the actor/director has done with “Gran Torino,” one of the funniest movies of the year, and not unintentionally so. While some serious films are so ridiculous that you can’t help but laugh (see: “Eagle Eye”), Eastwood’s latest directorial effort actually wants to be funny, and in some strange way, it works better than you could possibly imagine. Some of that has to do with the instantly iconic character that writers Nick Schenk and Dave Johannson have created, but when all is said and done, it’s Eastwood just being Eastwood that makes “Gran Torino” such a wildly enjoyable experience.
Walt Kowalski (Eastwood) is the grumpiest, most racist Korean War veteran you’ve ever met. A retired Ford factory worker who’s just buried his wife, Walt is one of the last white residents of a predominantly Asian suburb of Detroit. There are only a few things he still holds dear to him – his golden retriever Daisy and his 1972 Gran Torino – and when the latter is almost stolen by a neighborhood Hmong teenager named Thao (Bee Vang), Walt is dragged into a world he wants nothing to do with. That situation is made even worse when he saves Thao and his older sister, Sue (Anhey Her), from a Hmong gang looking to stir up a little trouble, and when he’s welcomed into the community as a local hero, he puts his racisms aside to help mentor the painfully shy Thao into becoming a man who can stand up for himself.
The phrase “tastefully racist” has been mentioned when discussing Eastwood’s performance in the film, and while that may sound like an oxymoron, there really is no better way to describe his character. Walt spends the first 40 minutes of the film doing two things – growling and making racist comments – and if you don’t find yourself laughing at every bigoted, curmudgeonly thing he has to say, well, you need to lighten up. Walt clearly has some growing up of his own to do in the tolerance department, and though he still refers to his neighbors as “gooks” even after he’s become friends with them, by that time, it’s more out of habit than disgust.
Of course, for as gut-wrenchingly funny as the first act is, the movie doesn’t really begin until after Walt has stepped in to save the day. His interactions with the Hmong really bring out the best in his character, and there’s no better proof of this than when he’s forced to mingle with them during a dinner party at Thao and Sue’s house. At first, he’s a little hesitant as to how he’s going to be received, but before long, he’s sitting in the kitchen being served like a king by a flock of Hmong women.
It’s scenes like these that make the film such a refreshing break from more downbeat fare like Eastwood’s own “Changeling,” because even though the story is predictable (except for the somewhat surprising but entirely appropriate ending), “Gran Torino” is all about the unlikely relationship between Walt and Thao. For untrained actors, both Bee Vang and Anhey Her are outstanding in their supporting roles, but it’s Eastwood who stands out as the highlight of “Gran Torino,” and for good reason. Without him in front of and behind the camera, the movie just wouldn’t carry the same gravitas. It may not seem like very much when measured up against bigger spectacles like “Slumdog Millionaire” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” but “Gran Turino” is unquestionably one of the best pictures of the year.
Special Edition Blu-Ray Review:
To this day, Clint Eastwood still hasn’t recorded an audio commentary for any of his films, so it’s not surprising that one hasn’t been included on “Gran Torino.” What is surprising, however, is that the only worthwhile extra (the making-of featurette, “The Eastwood Way”) is a Blu-ray exclusive. All that DVD owners get, meanwhile, are two short featurettes – one where the cast and crew discuss the allure of cars (“Manning the Wheel”), and another where collectors tell stories about their favorite vehicles (“More Than a Car”). It’s a pretty underwhelming collection of bonus material, but not at all unexpected considering the no-frills nature of the movie itself.