Gran Torino may very well represent Clint Eastwood's last acting performance. (At least, that's the buzz.) It's a freshly-imagined, deftly-handled cinematic rendering of an offbeat story involving life decisions, the regrets they inevitably foster, and the bittersweet pill of redemption. Which is to say that Clint Eastwood also directs.
(Oh, and then there's that whole coming-together-despite-our-ethnic-differences theme.)
Mr. Eastwood is by now the world's most accomplished hand at playing the baddest bad-ass amongst whatever segment of the human population he happens to be inhabiting. If there's bare-knuckle fighting, guts-and-glory soldiering, old west gunfighting or rogue cop magnuming to be done, he's done it ... and done it with style.
Oh, sure, the "bad guys" have occasionally knocked him down and beat the crap out of him, but when they fail to actually ventilate his left ventricle (which they invariably do), then God help them when he recuperates, because no one else is apt to prove capable.
Enter Walt Kowalski, his character in the present film. Walt's chief weaponry consists not of blazing guns or flashing fists, but plain old attitude - enhanced by a vocabulary of perjoratives and epithets the likes of which we haven't heard since... O.K., I've never heard anything like it.
Walt's a walking, talking fossil in the working class Detroit neighborhood where he lives: during the decades he and his wife have inhabited their comfortable home, the faces of his neighbors have changed from people just like Walt (white Anglo Saxon Christians) to a motley assortment of ethnicities ranging from African American to Hispanic to the Hmong (Southeast Asian) folks who've recently moved in next door. He doesn't really care for any of them, being the crotchetiest crotchety old geezer ever depicted on screen, but Walt's got other issues on his mind at present, and those involve somehow getting rid of all the people in his house who have shown up for his wife's wake.
In addition to his two simpering sons (Brian Haley as Mitch; Brian Howe as Steve) and their less-than-sympathetic wives and offspring, these include the local priest, Father Janovich (Christopher Carley, who does a good job of portraying an outsider who knows he has the Ace of Gods in his pocket). The good Father tells Walt that his wife, on her deathbed, had made him promise to get Walt into the confessional. Walt congratulates the fair-haired lad for taking on a lost cause and continues ignoring everyone until they all eventually leave the building.
Stepping outside during this rare family get-together for a chaw (think Josey Wales, right down to the loyal canine companion), Walt takes the opportunity to glare and spit in the general direction of his Asian neighbors, whose grand matriarch spends much of her time in a rocking chair on the front porch. Since Walt habitually sits on his front porch to drink vast quantities of Pabst while considering the futility of it all and the inevitability of non-existence (or something), he and she occasionally trade demeaning curse-laden verbal greetings, though neither can understand what the other is actually saying.
The younger generation of the Lor family, however - including teenagers Sue (Ashley Her) and Thao Vang (Bee Vang) - speak perfectly good English, and attempt to make inroads into their crotchety neighbor's blank wall of emotional impenetrability. They invariably fail at such attempts until Walt - M-1 Garand at aim - intervenes in a gang initiation which would have led to the theft of the vintage Gran Torino automobile he's been babying for 30 some-odd years. From this point, Walt and the two Lor kids undertake an increasingly respectful acquaintance that develops - grudgingly, on Walt's part - into full-blown friendship.
Along the way to the film's redemptive (and surprisingly satisfying) conclusion, we find Walt growling his way through a family banquet at the Lor's in which he serves as the most obtrusive of odd men out ever (though he doesn't care, since the food is so tasty). There's a touching series of scenes in which Walt trains the quiet, introspective Thao Vang in the carpentry trade: we learn that WD-40, Vise-Grips and duct tape are all a man really needs - which, of course, all real men in the audience already knew. From there, Thao Vang's apprenticeship diverges into the area of "manning up" through the cultivation of "real man talk" - which undertaking is expedited by Barber Martin (John Carroll Lynch) and contractor Tim Kennedy (William Hill), who know how to trade good-natured ethnic slurs with the worst of them.
Eastwood's son Scott makes a cameo appearance in a brief but tense vignette involving a street gang and an unsuspecting mixed-race couple who have wandered into their purview. Walt - who happens to be driving by in his battered pickup - intervenes in classic Clint fashion, armed only with his .44 caliber finger.
Gotta love it.
Will Clint get the Oscar nod this year for best actor? If he did, it would be equivalent to the statuette John Wayne received for his role as Rooster Cogburn in True Grit. Sure, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Sean Penn are probably more deserving from a single-performance standpoint - but this will probably be the last opportunity for the Man with No Name to hear his name called for the granddaddy of all acting awards.
In a final attempt to prove that he can do anything he wants in the filmmaking world - and do it at least passably well - Clint husks out the title song over the end credits of the movie. (This does not prove to be his finest hour, though fortunately it only lasts for a few minutes.)
MORE OF AN ADMISSION, ACTUALLY: "I confess that I have no desire to confess to a kid who's just out of seminary." - Walt to Father Janovich
AYE, THERE'S THE RUB: "Sounds like you know a lot more about death than you do about living." - Father Janovich to Walt
CAN I GET THAT THAI SPICY?: "Let's go downstairs and get some of that good Gook food." - Walt to Sue