It’s the growl that does it. A catarrh-thick snarl accompanied by a gob of spit, the corners of the mouth turned sharply downwards until they resemble a graph of General Motors’ share price. Like his favourite car – a ’72 Ford Gran Torino – retired Detroit autoworker Walt Kowalski is a relic from a different era.
But, as Clint Eastwood explains in one of two blink-and-you’ll-miss-it featurettes on this extras-lite DVD, “It’s not really a car picture. The car is really just a symbol of part of Walt. He sort of is the Gran Torino. He worked on it in the factory and he’s pretty much as antique as they are…”
Widely rumoured to be Clint’s final acting outing, his Kowalski is every iconic Man With No Name, Dirty Harry, William Munny performance rolled into one. It’s vintage Eastwood, distilled to perfection: the scowl, the growl and the instantly-quotable lines (“Get off my lawn!” or “Ever notice how you come across somebody once in a while you shouldn’t have fucked with? That’s me.”)
He’s also a bigot who greets the arrival of a Hmong family next-door with a stream of non- PC epithets (“slopes”, “gooks” – but hey, it’s OK as he’s an equal opportunities bigot who hates “spooks”, “micks” and “dagos”, too). We’re invited to laugh with him as he slurs everyone he comes across. No wonder the Academy’s liberals snubbed this offering in favour of Changeling.
The tension heats up when the neighbours’ fatherless son Thao (Bee Vang) attempts to steal Kowalski’s prized Torino, egged on by nasty Asian gangbangers. Suddenly the Korean War vet breaks out his M1 Garand – .30 calibre, gas-powered, 450ft range – and kills the bad guys, Dirty Harry style.
That’s what you’d expect, right? Except Clint doesn’t go to that place. Sure, he brings the pain – 78 years and a Simon Cowell waistband is no impediment to giving gangsters a kicking – but vigilantism isn’t the theme here. Instead, as he’s slowly won over by his new neighbours (including mawkish Ahney Her as Thao’s big sis) and some spicy pork, the craggy racist discovers his gooey soft-centre. Sound like Hollywood formula? Well, it is. And not even the star’s smooth direction can disguise the by-the-numbers schtick.
However, this is an Eastwood vehicle – perhaps the last ever – and his iconic presence gives the Catholic theme (sin and salvation) some unexpected horsepower. Laced with an awareness that the way of the gun is a dead end, Gran Torino is Eastwood’s belated atonement for his .44 Magnum-stroking Harry Callahan or his six-shooting Blondie.
It’s an old man’s picture: fuzzily sentimental, for sure. But just as Detroit don’t make Fords like the Torino no more, so Hollywood don’t make old men like Clint Eastwood…
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