Clint is back in force in Gran Torino. He plays Walt Kowalski, Polack Korean War veteran, retired Ford Worker, and all round old git. Don’t call him Walt, though. He lives as a widower with dear old Daisy the Dog in a run down suburb of Detroit, if you can imagine such a place.
Walt is semi-detached Catholic, and spends much of the first half of the film grunting his disapproval of everything and anything in a kind of deep throat Hrrrmh, that sounds like a Model T starting up on a frosty morning. It’s the best dyspeptic Hrrrmh there is, right up there with Marge Simpson’s, and fractionally deeper. It rattled the light fittings in the High Wycombe fleapit, anyway.
Walt is profoundly damaged goods. His dead missus used to try forlornly to make him go to confession and clear the decks. Sadly stripling whippersnapper priests are another Walt dislike, and he hasn’t been in 50 years.
Actually when we get to hear his confession many may wonder what all the fuss was about — one of the slight plot infelicities that make this a very good rather than a great movie. Walt’s prize possession is his immaculate 1972 Gran Torino, which he did not buy second hand from Starsky & Hutch, but which he built with his own fair hand back in the days when Fords were Fords.
The whole area is going to the dogs. Good ol’ fashioned blue collar whites are moving out and gooks and worse are moving in. Hrrrmh. As Walt contemplates the descent of his neighborhood into punk dystopolis, he has only his Korean War memories to comfort him, and you don’t wanna know how nasty they are. Hrrrmh. Just to make things even worse, Walt’s own family have gone all middle class on him; his grand-daughter’s belly button peeks out from under her tank top at Grandma’s funeral (hrrrmh) and, worst of all, his son now sells Toyotas (double hrrrmh).
Walt could do with a chum like Morgan Freeman to give him wisdom, or even a nubile female boxer in need of training to cheer him up, but this is Detroit, remember? Instead, the Chinese move in next door. There’s no proper man of the house, only young Thao aged 16 or thereabouts. Young Thao has nasty cousins, and they put him up to an attempt to pinch Walt’s Gran Torino; a thoroughly bad notion. After some Dirty Harry sorting out of various local punks, including Thao’s nasty cousins, the Chinese start leaving yummy whole glazed pigs on Walt's doorstep — unusual behaviour, and the pigs go straight in the bin of course, but it begins to melt the old so-and-so’s heart.
Young Sue, leader of the Chinese next door, is cheerful, indeed spunky, in a thoroughly nice All-American sense of the term. She befriends Walt and draws him into her world, using Duff beer. I now have to adopt the voiceover style of a ghastly Marks and Spencers food ad campaign this side of the pond and reveal that these are not any old common or garden Chinese. These are handpicked Hmong Chinese, ejected by goddam commies from Laos. Walt takes young Thao in hand and sets him up for a life of his own with a manly trade. But the baddies need dealing with, and these days that requires not Dirty Harry annihilation, but a redemptive sacrifice.
Suspend your disbelief and this is a delightful, even inspiring film. It blends Clint’s early rough justice lawman thing with his late dyspeptic heart-of-gold thing. The infrastructure that carries what is actually a far more improbable plot than it seems at the time, is beautifully crafted and visually superb.
Yes, it’s hokum, I suppose, with necessary but slightly unpleasant Archie Bunker racist undertones. However this is a very good movie indeed, and Lucy and I thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. I am slightly surprised it didn’t fare better at the Oscars, but I’m not sure which award would have been right. Direction was a tad slack early on but tightened up beautifully as the story ascended Mount Improbable.
Clint must have a shelf of lifetime achievement awards, and this movie amply justifies them. Dyspeptic but profoundly decent old git is Clint’s natural métier these days, and he plays it with the same effortless superiority Lassie exhibits playing a Border Collie. All right thinking people will salute him and enjoy this movie for what it is; almost as good as Million Dollar Baby, but probably not quite.