The very notion of seeing the legend that is Mr Clint Eastwood strutting his acting stuff in any drama should have pretty much made any film fan eager. If rumours are to be believed, Gran Torino will see Eastwood in his last on-screen appearance and what a send off it would be. He's as gruff, tough, and full of presence as ever, simply just adding to an already compelling, powerful, and morally complex motion picture.
Gran Torino tells the story of old-timer and Vietnam veteran Walt Kowalski, who inadvertently saves a young Hmong teenager (who has recently moved in next door to him) from a pestering gang. His firm, sometimes racist, grievances against the Asian family soon starts to subside once he gets to know the family better, especially when he puts the teenage boy to work as payback for trying to steal his most prized possession: his 1972 Gran Torino.
Although backed up by some terrific writing, a subtle realism, and wonderfully simplistic structure, the main onus is on the central performance of Eastwood as the stubborn, set-in-his-ways Walt. This sits comfortably amongst the best acting Eastwood has ever produced and is a firm reminder that not only is he a talented man behind the camera but a truly gifted one in front of it, something his seldom on-screen appearances over the last 10 years or so may have made us forget. And not only does the character stand alone as being different in its own right but it also brings back fond memories of past Eastwood characters; you can easily recognise Harry Calahan or any other numbers of past Eastwood screen greats getting old and grudgingly putting up with an ever-changing world.
In an attempt to capture as much realism as possible, Eastwood has decided to use real life people from the Asian-American community. And although this certainly, at first, conveys a notion of realism it has turned out to be a deeply scarring mistake. The inexperience of these (mostly young) actors is undoubtedly and unequivocally clear from minute one of their on-screen appearances. There's not many actors who could keep up with Eastwood in the acting department anyway, so it goes without saying the challenge was there even for an experienced young actor to share screen time with the legend. But these, to put it quite blatantly, amateurs just aren't up to the task of playing very key supporting roles.
From moment one of being introduced to Walt it is clear he is an old man set in the ways of his past, perturbed by any changes to what he knows (including anyone other than white Americans living in his neighbourhood). His sarcastic remarks are written extremely well, even coming off as acceptable when he's being quite racist at points, and it's a delicate balance that very few actors could pull off. And although the remarks do run out of steam a bit by the time you get to later on in the film, they are nonetheless not too plentiful that it becomes all that distracting.
Gran Torino continues Eastwood's directing trend of being unfussy and minimalistic. This then gives us a chance to concentrate on the dialogue, drama, or tension at hand without being distracted by fancy editing or camera work. Even when events are taking place which resemble action, it doesn't stray from it's simple structure, something a lot of directors wouldn't have the expertise to restrain themselves to. Pretty much all of Eastwood's work, but particularly his most recent stuff (Million Dollar Baby and Mystic River, to name a couple), have been enjoyable purely on the front that there's nothing complicated about the way they're filmed or structured.
Although much tension, and often excitement, is drawn from the part of the story which deals with the teenage neighbour being tormented by a local gang, the film is more about drawing drama and humour from the smallest of situations. Although undoubtedly a very serious affair at times, much of the film is made up of those small, "funny because they're true" kind of humour that has you at least smirking from ear to ear in between being gripped by the drama. It's the type of film realistic to life; we all know it's not always exciting and fast paced, sometimes the most seemingly monotonous or everyday situations can contain the real moments worth remembering.
Props go to Eastwood and writer Nick Schenk for bringing the film's plot to an unpredictable but nonetheless fitting conclusion, one which sends you away equal parts sad and uplifted. Echoing the simple nature of the rest of the film, the ending is straightforward, natural and above all, believable.
Gran Torino may employ the, perhaps, clichéd story telling device of cross-generational interaction and the contrasts which inevtiably ensue but it does so with great aplomb. It's also, maybe, a bit of an obvious attempt at anti-racism that shows its card a bit too plainly at times. But similar to Paul Haggis' Crash, in spite of its problems, Gran Torino is nevertheless an emotional, affecting, and mature drama that is fronted by a brilliant performance from one of the legends of cinema.