Around the age of 75, most actors tend to retire, they do smaller parts, or if they do a larger part, it is something light-hearted or inspirational. along the lines of Henry Fonda in On Golden Pond, George Burns in Oh God, or Walter Matthau in Grumpy Old Men.
With Clint Eastwood, nothing could be further from the truth. At 78 he not only starred in Gran Torino, but he also directed, and produced the film. This is the first lead acting role since 2004's Million Dollar Baby, which won him much critical acclaim.
The story is about retired autoworker Walt Kowalski (Eastwood) whose wife has recently passed away. Walt spent some tough times in the Korean War. He saw a lot and did some things that he doesn't talk about. The neighborhood that Walt lives in is not the same as it was in the sixties and seventies. It has become a ghetto that has become infiltrated with Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians. Everything has become rundown, everything except Walt's house.
After the funeral, friends and family come to Walt's house to pay respect. But Walt doesn't take or give respect lightly. Most of the time he doesn't give it at all. This becomes apparent from the outset of the movie when he winces at what his granddaughter wears to the funeral; when his wife's priest, Father Janovich (Christopher Carley) who promised Walt's wife that he would check in on him now and then and offer to hear his confession; and when a young Asian boy comes to the door to borrow some jumper cables and gets the door slammed in his face. Also, the racial slurs that Walt uses about any and all ethnic groups.
Then there are the people next door. It is an extended Asian family of the Hmong culture. They have a rich tradition, and there are always people coming and going. The paint on their house is peeling and weeds run rampant in their yard. The old matriarch of the family is about as grumpy as Walt, but does not speak a word of English.
In Walt's garage is his prized possession. A 1972 Pontiac Gran Torino Sport he helped build. The shy neighbor boy who had the door slammed in his face, Thao (Bee Vang), is being recruited by a Hmong gang led by his cousin Spider (Doua Moua). Thao has been raised by women, and does not have a lot of skills that, as an Asian man, would be viewed as important. By getting him into the gang, his cousin wants to give him some skills that he can be respected for. For an initiation rite, Thao is expected to steal Walt's Gran Torino.
Walt interrupts the robbery with his military-issued M1 rifle forcing Thao to flee. When Spider and his gang return the next day they drag him off of the porch, his sister Sue (Ahney Her) fights to stop them. They end up in Walt's yard with the gang beating on him. Aiming his M1-Garland rifle, Walt says with gritted teeth, "Get off my lawn." You can hear Dirty Harry Callahan at 78. When one of the gang members tells him to go back into the house, Walt replies, "I blow a hole in your face and I go in the house and sleep like a baby. You can count on that".
Needless to say the gang tells him to watch his back, and then leaves. Much to Walt's chagrin, he becomes the neighborhood hero. People are bringing him flowers and food and laying it on his front porch. They now won't stop leaving him alone.
It is through this incident and another involving Thao's sister Sue that opens the door for Walt to begin to see the Asian family in a different light. Sue is very outgoing. She is also very dominating, can put up with Walt's racial taunts, and is also the most Americanized of the family. She begins to explain the differences in culture in a way that Walt can relate back to his own values.
When Thao comes to work off his attempted stealing of the Gran Torino and restore his family honor, it doesn't start off promising, but it is through Thao's redemption, that Walt can find his own redemption.
Gran Torino works on so many levels. First, you have the stereotypes on all sides of the aisle. The easy one is the American versus the Asian. But you also have the young versus the old. You have Walt's kids and grandkids who think that he is an angry old man who is out of touch with today. You have Walt who thinks that his kids and grandkids don't respect anything anymore. You have the various gang members that Walt encounters that think that because he is old, he can't take them on.
Then you have the value of respect. Respect is not something that is either given or taken. Rather it is something that is earned, and it should never be taken lightly. Even the priest, over time earns some of Walt's respect just as the priest begins to respect Walt.
Then there is the value of friendship. You wouldn't think so at the beginning of Gran Torino, but Walt does have friends. It is through them you begin to understand who Walt is and the time from which he lived. There is a particularly funny scene when Walt takes Thao to visit his barber so that they can "man" him up.
Finally there is the value of honor. It is through Thao, and the value his family placed on their honor, that Walt realizes that when you do something to dishonor yourself, you have to repay that violation, no matter what the cost.
I thought that Gran Torino was an incredibly well-made, well-directed, and well-acted film. To his credit, Eastwood wanted Hmong as cast members, so through various organizations they set up casting calls around the country to enlist their help and all cast members provided high quality, believable roles.
The rest of the cast was excellent as well. The only problem I had was with the Father Janovich character. At the beginning, he was very one dimensional, then as he gained some depth, he disappeared for a long segment of the movie, and when he appeared again it was somewhat disjointed and apart from the rest of the actors. This had nothing to do with Carley's acting, rather it seems like an under-defined, yet somewhat pivotal character.
There are two bonus features on the DVD. The first, "Manning the Wheel: The Meaning of Manhood" is about the meaning of manhood as it is reflected in the American car culture. The second, "Gran Torino: More than a Car" is both about the car, and about Detroit's Woodward Dream Cruise which is an annual vintage car event. Here, car buffs describe the bond between men and cars.
Personally, I do not understand why Gran Torino was snubbed by the 81st Academy Awards as it was not nominated for even a single category. I think that the studio messed up by putting it out too late, but it certainly deserved many nominations. This has become more evident in light of fact that it has earned to this date over $250 million worldwide and still growing.
The bottom line is that I really liked Gran Torino. I think it is one of the top-ten movies of 2008. The characters, the situations, and resolutions were all believable and memorable. For me, it was one of those movies that even today, five days after I saw it for the first time, I still see it in my mind and go over various scenes; many with fondness.
Clint Eastwood may be one of those few individuals (if not the only one) to star in the role of lead actor of a blockbuster movie in each of the last five decades. It will be interesting to see what he has up his sleeve for 2010 and beyond.