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Gran Torino
cast: Clint Eastwood, Christopher Carley, Bee Vang, Ahney Her, and John Carroll Lynch

director: Clint Eastwood

112 minutes (15) 2008
widescreen ratio 2.40:1
Warner DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Christopher Geary
SPOILER ALERT!
Donald Petrie's 1993 comedy movie Grumpy Old Men was, essentially, about two feuding neighbours, elderly Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, with Ann-Margret bringing mature glamour to a senior rom-com plot. There was also a television programme (nothing to do with Petrie's film) titled Grumpy Old Men (2003-6) - which featured the likes of Arthur Smith, Rick Wakeman, and most notably, Will Self - grumbling about the deplorable state of once-Great Britain, Tony Blair's government failures, insidious moral decline, grievous social decay and a generalised ongoing falling of standards everywhere - with each commentator evincing a world-weary Englishman's wisdom borne of unquiet desperation. As home-grown social documentary, TV series GOM maintained a unique virtual 'support group' for viewers of a certain age, with its parade of contrary duffers sitting in judgment and complaining - on the general public's behalf (so to speak, anyway) - about the many and various niggling faults, annoying errors, and unpleasant stupidities of modern life in the disappointing 21st century...

Now, here's Hollywood's greatest living icon, Clint Eastwood, astutely tapping into a plethora of weighty 'issues' and potentially-incendiary themes, including fierce endemic racism - particularly from overly-patriotic white Americans, but also within urban gang territories of ethic minorities, and the numerous corrosive problems surrounding the crumbling agendas of multiculturalism and the haphazard integration of immigrants into failing 'American' communities. Gran Torino tackles some of the same all-too-human mediocrity, likely ineptitude and obvious mistakes which TV's Grumpy Old Men addressed, but does so with a far more aggressive machismo instead of merely sniping from the sidelines. Eastwood's dark film also suggests - in a breezy, though calculated, manner - that the 'American dream' is now well and truly dead (just as the USA seems on the verge of collapse as the premier economic superpower), and it delivers a compelling, savagely critical, ultimately laudable interrogation of that very same indomitable anti-heroism upon which the actor-director has centred his own filmmaking career.

Although principal character, Walt Kowalski (Eastwood, at his most brooding and crusty), is not a maverick cop - cast from the same 1970s' mould of San Francisco's detective-inspector Callaghan, the neo-fascist shadow of 'dirty Harry' looms larger than life over the retired car-factory worker and Korean War veteran. So set in his ways his demeanour is like reinforced concrete, Walt is civilised yet prickly at best, brusque with trespassers, growling at transgressors, resorting to gun-toting threats when Hmong neighbours' boy Thao (Bee Vang) - who Walt insists on calling 'Toad' - attempts to steal a car, Walt's prized GT. Confronting wastrel nuisances, that lured young Thao into grand theft auto as his initiation into their Vietnamese gang, Walt inadvertently becomes a local hero and respected figure in the community. A lapsed catholic, and recently widowed, Walt is encouraged back to church and overdue confession by pandering Father Janovich (Christopher Carley), a novice padre whose singular expression of wisdom is to defer a final judgement on 'matters of life and death' to cantankerous survivor Walt, especially regarding confrontational dealings with the idiotic thugs.

Walt Kowalski's son is basically a tactless yuppie, married with children; including a self-absorbed daughter who openly covets Walt's classic car. Walt maintains few close friendships - except for the likes of his impolite barber Martin (John Carroll Lynch, a willing straight man for Clint's awkwardly 'humorous' banter), especially good in a painfully tragicomic scene where admittedly-inept substitute-father Walt struggles to mentor the earnest yet callow Thao in acerbic male-bonding shtick. In short, Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, the typically obsolete 20th century loner left behind by on-rushing millennial change, as the blue-collar counterpart to Michael Douglas' unwanted corporate drone 'D-Fens', the spiky protagonist of Joel Schumacher's uncannily perceptive black-comedy drama, Falling Down (1993). Like the 'exiled' D-Fens, Walt is another lost cause, a kind of refugee lost in his own insecure homeland. He's perpetually baffled by everyday wonders that undermine his tolerance for changes in life, acceptance of which engenders only a dispiriting new age of meaninglessness. This not a film about geriatric woes, but it is a parable about American masculinity's slow fade into zero value. The stubborn protagonist, who has a great car and his own gun, belatedly realises that such things no longer define his sense of manhood. Unsatisfied with old age, Walt eventually commits a more courageous act than he imagined himself capable of before his wife's death.

Of course, lifelong smoker Walt finds his lung cancer has reached a terminal phase, and eventually acts upon grudging but fast-growing sympathies for the apparently unsolvable social predicament of Hmong neighbours, and he becomes resigned to making one last stand, a compassionate martyr's gesture of understanding - that's reached a little too easily, brings redemptive closure for Walt, and wraps the story up too neatly, but no such obvious nitpicking can undo all the good work detailed in Clint's character-building scenes. Yes, it's a weak framework and a rather low-key drama to mark the end of such a big star's acting career, but Gran Torino is a heartfelt effort, and certainly not a small-minded film.
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