Movie Review: Gran Torino (2008)

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Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood), Thao (Bee Vang), Vu (Brooke Chia Thao), Grandma (Chee Thao) and Sue (Ahney Her) in Gran Torino
Photo: Warner Bros.

If you are an Asian reading this review (or any minority, just replace the slurs) I can only wonder how many times it would take for an ignorant Korean War vet calling you a “gook” or a “slope” before you either punched him in the face or asked him to never speak to you again. Gran Torino presents such a man as Clint Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, an old school war vet who has seen the neighbors he once knew either move or die away and have since been replaced by a more diverse group of families. Living next door is a family of Hmong immigrants who bring to the surface Walt’s prejudice only to be outdone by the Asian, African American and Latino gang-bangers now roaming the streets. Of course, this doesn’t sit well with Walt and neither does a foiled attempt by Thao (Bee Vang), the young boy living next door, to steal Walt’s ’72 Gran Torino as part of a forced gang initiation. The attempted theft and a subsequent “Get off my grass” situation brings Walt closer to his neighbors, but his prejudices are never absent turning Gran Torino into a film vying for your sympathy for an altogether unsympathetic character. If it works have you been manipulated?

As the film plays on and Walt gets closer to the family living next door he begins to believe he has more in common with them than he does his own family. The epiphany is meant to show Walt’s change in viewpoint, but all it does is prove he has found a soft spot in his heart for the one family living next door. Had he truly found the ability to vanquish all racism he would not still refer to a young girl named Youa as Yum-Yum and he would most certainly stop with the racial slurs.

Gran Torino is only gaining a large amount of attention due to having Eastwood as its star and director, a film that may in fact end up being Eastwood’s last turn as an actor. Without Eastwood this film would be nothing more than a manipulative Lifetime channel made-for-TV movie, but his involvement elevates it – somewhat.

Early on audiences laugh at Walt’s astonishing ability to be ever-so-ignorant toward everyone he meets. It’s hard to believe a man can be this ignorant and it does incite a comical reaction. However, as the film plays on and Walt just won’t quit – even once he becomes supposedly “friends” with those he is insulting – it begins to make you uncomfortable, primarily because it comes at a time when we are supposed to be watching Walt go through a transformation of sorts. Outside of “gook” and “slope” Walt manages to work in words such as “zipperhead,” “fishhead” and “spook”. I have a problem simply typing the words and hearing them for over two hours isn’t much better.

If you are able to find some level of comfort in dealing with the film’s racist vibe the acting is a mix of good and awful. Eastwood is fine as a racist ignoramus dealing with his past while confronted with an unanticipated future. His character’s “fish out of water” attitude is very well portrayed, but it is a role portrayed to such a level you would never guess this is an old dog that can learn new tricks. On the other end of the spectrum is Bee Vang as Thao, a young actor simply up against too much as one final scene opposite Eastwood shows this kid may be able to get pushed around for 90 minutes, but 30 minutes of emotion are beyond his abilities. Ahney Her as Thao’s older sister Sue is far better than Vang by comparison, but the acting talent definitely belongs to Eastwood as the grouchy growler Walt.

Gran Torino is a simple story that carries more weight than it should thanks to Eastwood. It will be judged based on Eastwood’s involvement which may cause some to overlook its flaws and simply lavish praise. However, this film is just as good as it is bad. It’s cause and effect, for what makes Eastwood’s character so incredibly racist it causes his mild change of opinion all the less effective.

GRADE: C+

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