Gran Torino had at one time been rumored to be the latest sequel to the Dirty Harry series. While that’s not the case, one might conjecture that Harry Callahan and Walt Kowalski might have been fast friends. Kowalski, a Korean War veteran, has the same attitudes towards minorities and the same distance from the people around him. Kowalski has to face off against criminals, like Harry Callahan, but Gran Torino shows that Clint Eastwood has done a lot of thinking about the vengeance genre — and has produced a deconstruction as worthy as Unforgiven was for Westerns.
** Some spoilers ahead **
The film starts off with the funeral of Kowalski’s wife, where we meet his sons and grandchildren, who are all self-absorbed, and as contemptuous of Kowalski as he is of them. Kowalski refuses to leave his neighborhood, which has changed considerably over the decades into a gang-infested area with Hmong immigrants dominating his block. When he rescues the family next door from an Asian gang, he becomes a hero to his neighbors and slowly becomes friends with the teenagers, Sue and Thao. Unfortunately, the gang doesn’t quit trying to either recruit Thao and begins terrorizing their family, prompting Kowalski into action.
Fans of the vengeance genre know what follows from here. We’ve seen it in Death Wish and The Brave One, where the protagonist defeats the criminals by out-terrorizing them. Dirty Harry kills them dead. Walt Kowalski tries this, too, only it backfires when Kowalski realizes that the gang-bangers can’t get out-terrorized. Kowalski decides on a different path to rid the neighborhood of the gang and to free Thao and Sue for good — one which might come as a shock, although Eastwood gives Kowalski enough depth for some viewers to see where he’s going.
Eastwood gives us an interesting portrait of a man from a different age unable to adjust to his changing environment. Kowalski is a bigot, without a doubt, but more out of ignorance and habit than malice. He uses racially insensitive terms with his neighbors, but also with his friends, and Eastwood makes it clear that Kowalski doesn’t see the difference. Ahney Her’s Sue understands Walt better than Walt understands himself and in a sense rescues him from his isolation. Bee Vang delivers a good performance as Thao, stuck between his own gentle nature and the gang-bangers from his own family that threaten him. Christopher Carley turns what could have been a cardboard role as a young priest into an affecting performance, and in the end the priest inadvertently helps save Kowalski’s soul.
Gran Torino is a terrific film, one that begins by indulging the well-known guideposts of the vengeance genre and winds up knocking them down. The only off-key note in the film — and it’s a minor quibble — was the rather cartoonish portrayals of Kowalski’s own family. The contrast between the Kowalskis and the Lors could have been made with a little more subtlety. Even with that caveat, this could be one of the best films of 2008 (its release date, although it just went into wide release a week ago or so), and wouldn’t surprise me to be considered the best of the year.
Definitely not for young viewers; violence, bad language, and adult themes.
Update: It’s ironic that there is a controversy in the comments about the sacreligious use of the Lord’s name in the movie, since this has a very Christian message in the end. The language in this case seems to be ironic, as is his initial reaction to the young priest. Stick with it; it’s worth it.