Saturday, January 24, 2009

Gran Torino

In lesser hands than Clint Eastwood's, the screenplay for Gran Torino could have been the blueprint for a mawkish cliché storm - the story of a racist, lonely old man who learns tolerance, love, and compassion in the twilight of his life. Indeed, Torino is preposterous on its head, written in broad, often predictable strokes with tired, played-out character arcs, littered with newbie supporting actors who just barely keep their dignity intact while trying to emote.

It's also one of 2008's sublime entertainments, an applause-worthy spectacle of political incorrectness, black comedy, unapologetic badassery, and Clint Eastwood growling his way to one of the best (and perhaps the most purely entertaining) performances of his career.

Clint is Walt Kowalski, a grizzled old veteran with a mile-wide mean streak, vulgar and racist, a man fully at home pointing a rifle and telling kids to "get off my lawn," who finds that his dilapidated Michigan suburb has become poor and populated almost entirely by Asian immigrants, with gang violence on the rise. But when he saves the Hmong boy next door, Thao, from a gang, he becomes a reluctant hero to the neighborhood and friend to his Hmong neighbors. His defenses break down and he gradually becomes a father figure, teaching Thao how to stand up for himself, get girls, and make his way in the world. But the gang eventually returns to pay their debt to Thao with bullets, and only Walt can save Thao's family.

The plot is trite enough to make you gag, but the reason the movie works - gloriously, completely works - is because it is hysterical. Clint Eastwood's cheerfully thrown bombs of "gook," "spook," and "zipperhead" towards every minority that crosses his path spit directly in the face of anything resembling common decency without shame or apology, and although we acknowledge what a horrible person Walt Kowalski is his obliviousness to the way you're supposed to talk and behave in civilized modern society is wickedly entertaining; Dirty Harry filtered through the lens of George Wallace.

Imagine any other elderly actor in the leading role, even a talented one, the movie falls to pieces. No, this movie absolutely had to have Clint Eastwood in it, delivering all his lines through sickening gravel, exuding a raw, classical masculinity long since lost to Hollywood. When he rasps out lines like, "Ever notice how you come across somebody once in a while you shouldn't have fucked with?!", "I used to stack fucks like you five feet high in Korea, used you for sandbags," or, "I'm no hero. I was just trying to get that babbling gook off my lawn!", without any hint of a smile, I guffawed drunkenly and it was all I could do not to stand and applaud.

Far from maudlin, Eastwood turns Gran Torino into one of 2008's great black comedies and delivers in Walt Kowalski one of American cinema's classic unadulterated bastards with a heart of gold. If this is truly Clint's final performance, he went out on a wholly delightful note. Gran Torino, for all its clichés and faults, is an unadulterated guilty pleasure that left me grinning like an idiot.

4 Stars out of 5

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