Warner Bros. // 2008 // 116 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Roy Hrab (Retired) // June 9th, 2009
"The thing that haunts a man the most is what he isn't ordered to do."
Clint Eastwood (Flags Of Our Fathers) is an American film icon famous for roles that see him deliver justice through the barrel of a gun and other violent means. In the thought-provoking and surprising Gran Torino, Eastwood reverses course to make the case that violence merely leads to greater cruelty and that real solutions lay elsewhere.
Walt Kowalski (Eastwood) is a recently widowed, Korean War veteran and retired autoworker, living by himself in a Detroit neighborhood that, like the city, has seen better days. Being alone suits him just fine; he doesn't much care for his materialistic sons, disrespectful grandkids, the local priest (Christopher Carley, Lions For Lambs), or Hmong neighbors who have emigrated from Southeast Asia. All Walt wants to do is sit on his porch with his American flag, drink beer, and admire his pristine 1972 Gran Torino. However, when a Hmong street gang begins harassing the neighborhood, Walt intervenes and finds that he is unable to return to his isolated lifestyle.
Initially, Gran Torino plays out as if someone decided to fuse Grumpy Old Men with Dirty Harry. Eastwood is in full crusty old man mode, squinting, growling and spitting out insults and racial epithets to all the things in the world that annoy him, which is pretty much everything. He's an American that no longer feels at home in his country. Not only other races, but also his own family, alienate Walt.
Of course, circumstances conspire to involve Walt into the lives of his foreign neighbors when a Hmong gang starts roaming the area. Walt intercedes, American-cowboy style (i.e., willing to shoot first and ask questions later). Following his intervention Walt is, very much against his will, treated like a hero by the local community and becomes a father figure to the young Thao (Bee Vang). Soon the Hmong are human in the eyes of Walt. This doesn't mean Walt's race-baiting stops, but he respects them, wants them succeed, and helps them when he can.
Thus, the first half of the film appears to be a rather predictable and cliché driven story about a racist seeing the error of his ways, but this is a superficial reading of the film. Walt is not just an American, he represents America. It is no coincidence that his is the only house in the neighborhood with an American flag, or that the film is set in the once mighty industrial city of Detroit. This is an America struggling to come to grips with increasing multiculturalism and a decline in economic power. But while America may accept outsiders grudgingly, once recognized they are as American as anybody else and entitled to the American Dream. So, Walt may say offensive things about the Hmongs (and other groups), it's not because he is a hardcore, malevolent bigot, he's just trying to protect himself from things he doesn't understand. And once he's comfortable with them, he's their friend in good times and in bad. The insults are just to "man you up" a little.
In the second half of the film the humor falls away and the action switches gears into more sombre matters. The Hmong gang bangers reappear and Walt decides to retaliate unilaterally without consulting Thao or the other Hmongs. He thinks that his actions will settle the matter. Unfortunately, it only leads to an increase in brutality. This yields the first lesson: violence begets violence. More precisely, violence begets more vicious violence. However, if violence isn't the answer, what is? This is lesson number two: Selflessness and sacrifice are required to solve conflict. Walt realizes this after intense soul searching, leading to a climax that defies expectations, but not logic.
Still there is something even more subtle under these obvious moral lessons and commentary on race relationships in the United States. Lurking underneath the story playing out between Walt, the Hmongs, and the gang, is a critique of American foreign policy, specifically military intervention and the promotion of "democracy." It is impossible not to see parallels between the disastrous results of Walt's intervention to protect the Hmong with very real American forays in the Middle East, Asia, and Latin American that were intended to improve people's lives, but resulted in further instability and violence instead. This reading of the film makes Walt's ultimate action all the more significant and, perhaps, controversial.
The acting is excellent. Of course, Eastwood is the anchor and he growls, grunts, and spits out invectives like there's no tomorrow. Much of it is for laughs, but when malice is needed, he knows how to turn it up. The supporting cast are actually Hmong-Americans and played by non-actors. They do a fine job.
The audio and video are without problem. The video is flawless with the colors, shadows, and detail plain to see. The surround audio is fine, but the film doesn't really make use it, or particularly require it. All dialogue, sound effects, and soothing soundtrack are clear.
The extras are a waste of time and space. There are two featurettes, "Manning The Wheel" and "Gran Torino: More Than A Car," that focus on the Gran Torino, the importance of the relationship between men and their cars, and car enthusiasts. That they focus exclusively on cars is bizarre given that the car in the film is peripheral to most of the action. The release also gives access to download a digital copy of the film (Windows Media compatible only).
Rich, multilayered, subversive, and open to many interpretations without being heavy-handed, Gran Torino cements Clint Eastwood's status as the best American filmmaker working today.
Review content copyright © 2009 Roy Hrab; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 116 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Digital Copy
* Official Site