Clint Eastwood directs two different types of films, both with a steady, sturdy hand and pinpoint focus. And while they may not all be million-dollar babies, they are reliable and marked with a love of the craft.
Occasionally he'll swing for the fences, such as with his epic, both-sides-of-the-coin World War II-fer, Flags of Our Father and Letters From Iwo Jima, and the sweeping Unforgiven. Other times, he seems to just want to get things off his chest, such as in Gran Torino, his second release in as many months.
For those who long for his Dirty Harry days, you've got it, punk. In Torino, he's Dirty Walt (Mr. Kowalski, as he likes to be addressed), a hardened veteran whose world is becoming increasingly smaller — squelched by his alienated sons, who connect with him only in times of need, and his neighborhood, with its increasing foreign population and gang violence.
Walt is first introduced to us at the funeral of his wife. Filled with pain and anger, Walt takes every opportunity to unleash his racist, bigoted aggression on anyone within earshot. In church, he growls "Jesus," which seems more of a swear than a prayer. He's like Archie Bunker without the laugh track.
His new neighbors, a Hmong family with two young adult children, are easy targets for his ire. The youngest, Thao (played by newcomer Bee Vang) runs afoul with some gangbangers who force him to steal Walt's prized titular vehicle. It results in Thao eyeing the losing end of Walt's rifle and the menacing thugs fleeing in frustrated failure. (Wily Walt, unwilling to pronounce his name, calls the boy 'Toad,' which is actually one of the more kind nicknames he bestows.) Thao's precocious older sister, Su (played with natural effervescence by Ahney Her), unfazed by Walt's forked tongue, wedges herself, Thao, and their family into Walt's life.
There is nary a moment in Torino when viewers would be surprised at what transpires, but the film rests on Eastwood's directorial foundation, which is as granite solid as his glare, and it's easy to invest in his character's plight, even if it is mostly self-induced. And even though this film hasn't a fraction of its scope, it does share Unforgiven's vision of an America that is slipping into a new era and one man's resistance to going quietly.
It is anchored by Eastwood the performer, who playfully tweaks his big screen tough guy persona without mocking it, like DeNiro and Brando did in their latter years. At 78, Eastwood still looks as though he could take down a small flock of thugs, but he also shows the folly of his character's eye-for-an-eye mentality.
Like Walt's Torino, the film is polished and purring. It motors along with muscle, but just as the Ford Torino was never quite as symbolic as, say, the Mustang, the film is modest and dependable, not a flashy award-worthy affair. In fact, were it not for Eastwood's involvement, it's hard not to think that this film would barely make it to the screen, most certainly not with the splash it's currently receiving.
But it is two more hours we get to spend on screen with an icon who, unlike the beleaguered American auto industry for which his character once worked, is still going strong.