Gran Torino

Movie Information

The Story: An aging racist Korean War vet becomes attached to the troubled Asian family that moves in next door. The Lowdown: More myth-busting drama from Clint Eastwood. A strong concept, but it's mired in clichéd scripting, bad dialogue, indifferent filmmaking and some unpersuasive performances.
Score:

Genre: Drama
Director: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Christopher Carley, Bee Vang, Ahney Her, Brian Haley
Rated: R

If anyone—anyone but Clint Eastwood—had signed Gran Torino, it not only wouldn’t be positioned for awards, it would be dismissed out of hand as ham-handed, clunky and, frankly, amateurish. At the same time, it’s fair to say that Eastwood’s involvement is all there is that makes Gran Torino interesting in the first place. Less than 20 minutes into the film I asked myself, “Is this supposed to be funny?” And while it has things in it that clearly are meant to be funny, these were not the things I was asking about. The film is meant to be profound, and in some ways it is. But for the most part, it plays like the world’s most pretentious drive-in movie.

The film presents Eastwood as Walt Kowalski, a retired autoworker and Korean War veteran. The movie opens with the funeral of Walt’s wife, where we meet the crusty Walt, who seems rather more irritable than even such circumstances would cause. He essentially dislikes everybody: his family, the priest (Christopher Carley, Lions for Lambs), you name it. He literally growls (complete with a little Elvis lip curl) at things that displease him—some of which are understandable. Things are even worse after the funeral service when everyone moves to the house. He dismisses the turnout on the strength of the mourners probably having heard there would be “lots of ham.” (No comment.)

The basic setup is that Walt is a man out of his time. The neighborhood in which he lives has disintegrated to an alarming degree. The original residents have moved away or died, and the houses are now largely occupied by Asians (apparently impoverished Asians with a complete indifference when it comes to property upkeep). Walt snarls and growls at them, but insists on continuing to live in the old neighborhood as the proud owner of his picture-perfect house, going about his daily routine of mowing the lawn, muttering racial slurs, endlessly drinking beer and smoking—with time out for the occasional coughing fit, complete with that old movie staple: tell-tale blood on his handkerchief.

All this changes when the teenage Hmong boy next door, Thao (Bee Vang), gets pressured by his gang-banger cousin to steal Walt’s most treasured possession, his 1972 Gran Torino, in order to prove his worthiness to be a part of the gang. Thao—who appears to be more than a little backwards—fails the test, but the gang won’t leave him alone, which ultimately prompts Walt to threaten to shoot them (“Get off my lawn”) when their attempts annoy him. This causes the neighborhood to fete Walt as a hero—something he doesn’t desire in the least. The family makes Thao own up to his botched attempt at grand-theft auto and work off his debt to Walt. Slowly but surely, Walt comes to care for the boy, as well as his sister, Sue (Ahney Her). He teaches Thao how to swear and hurl racial slurs, and in general how to be a man, even helping him use his newfound vocabulary to get a job. In the process, he also becomes the kids’ unofficial protector—something they need since the gang has no intention of leaving them alone. All of this leads to the movie’s peculiar Christ-complex denouement.

The intent behind it all is to deliver an admirable lesson in racial understanding, but its presentation is even clunkier than the plotting. Trading on Eastwood’s Dirty Harry persona—but reducing him to the level of “Hey, you kids get off my lawn”—and then turning him into a kind of Archie Bunker is unwieldy at best. However, it does make for an interesting psychological extension of Eastwood’s twilight-years fixation by demystifying the very kinds of heroes he once helped to define. Whether it makes for very good drama is another matter—in part, because the film presents a relatively deep premise in terms that are simplistic and hackneyed. The penchant for descending into cheap melodrama and ridiculous plotting undermines the depth at every turn, as does the parade-of-set-pieces approach. And the latter causes the film to move in lurches, preventing it from coming across as a flowing narrative.

Much of the fault lies with the screenplay by Nick Schenk (whose credits extend to a TV show called Let’s Bowl), which has little sense of structure, lots of sense of clichés and no ear whatsoever for dialogue. But as director and producer, the buck has to stop at Eastwood, who obviously approved the script and insisted on casting non-actors in key roles. The idea was surely to make the kids “more realistic” in this manner. Unfortunately, this doesn’t make them actors, and instead of attaining realism, it mostly results in distracting amateurishness. Other decisions—like Eastwood “singing” on the ending credits—are simply bizarre.

The sad thing about all this is that there are a handful of powerful moments in the film. Walt’s refusal to talk about what it’s like to kill a man, his subsequent description of it as “goddamn awful” and his self-loathing over getting a medal for “killing some poor kid who just wanted to give up,” offer a look into the movie Gran Torino wanted to be. But it’s not the film that ended up on-screen, nor are these moments indicative of Eastwood’s overall performance, which is too often painfully broad and lacking in the substance these bits suggest. 

Nonetheless, the film remains generally entertaining in the limited fashion of a cheesy exploitation flick with a little something on its mind. Its value mostly lies in Eastwood’s deconstruction of the hero motif—which is the justification for grafting the otherwise superfluous La Dame aux Camelias consumption subplot onto the story. An interesting—even fascinating—movie that may be more so because of the very things that keep it from greatness. But that doesn’t make it an artistic success on its own merit. Rated R for language throughout and some violence.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

43 thoughts on “Gran Torino

  1. chuck savage

    Let the guy ride off into our sunset. I loved this movie. Who doesn’t love Clint and miss Dirty Harry? At 78… I wouldn’t wanna jack with him.

  2. Ken Hanke

    Who doesn’t love Clint and miss Dirty Harry?

    Well, I can’t say I do, but I know a lot of people do — and they’ve shown that over the weekend.

  3. Ezekiel

    I liked this movie but found it more enjoyable once I ‘realized’ halfway through that Walt Kowalski was really Harry Callahan living out his golden years in the Witness Protection Program.

  4. brebro

    If that’s true then it’s kind of cool that Clint is giving all his iconic archetypes one last aging glimpse. First the Man with Three Names (Joe Manco Blondie) in Unforgiven, and now Harry Callahan in Gran Torino. Was Million Dollar Baby his goodbye to Philo Beddoe?

  5. Justin Souther

    Was Million Dollar Baby his goodbye to Philo Beddoe?

    Only if Hilary Swank is Clyde.

  6. Ken Hanke

    Only if Hilary Swank is Clyde.

    Would this imply that Morgan Freeman gets the Ruth Gordon role?

  7. Sean Williams

    This was the second film I saw this season that made me ask myself, “Has anyone involved ever seen a movie before?” (The other was [i]Tale of Despereaux[/i].) It might have made a passable Lifetime Original Movie except for the racial slurs. I have no idea why the trolls have mustered in defense of this one!

    All of this leads to the movie’s peculiar Christ-complex denouement.

    I find it disturbing that the film exalts Walt as the pinnacle of American manhood. Admittedly, his family members are acquisitive jerks to a one (a point which the film hammers home repeatedly, forcefully, and at unnecessary length), but I fail to see his nobility except in contrast.

    Unfortunately, this doesn’t make them actors, and instead of attaining realism, it mostly results in distracting amateurishness.

    Ahney Her was simply unreal in her ineptitude. And at the risk of sounding misogynist, I highly doubt whether anyone would praise her “tight a–”.

    Other decisions — like Eastwood “singing” on the ending credits — are simply bizarre.

    Also, was I hallucinating, or was that a photo of Debbie Reynolds atop the coffin of Eastwood’s wife?

  8. T_REX

    Just saw this at the Carmike ( thank goodness for digital) and have to say it was better than expected. I have read from other film critics that the only thing good about the film is “seeing Dirty Harry in retirement” and although I see the weaknesses in the film I have to disagree. The story kept me going all the way through and it reminds me of what I love most about Eastwood helmed films. You never know how he will end them. That is why I liked this more than “Changeling”, in that film I felt he had too many endings.

  9. Ken Hanke

    It might have made a passable Lifetime Original Movie except for the racial slurs. I have no idea why the trolls have mustered in defense of this one!

    I’m actually surprised that this review has drawn so little wrath. Compare the outpouring of ire over such things as Seven Pounds and The Bucket List with this — and those are both movies that are pretty indefensible. Consider that someone actually called the paper long distance to complain about my review for Million Dollar Baby (with the intent, it seems, of getting me fired). I can actually see how it’s possible to mount a defense for this — assuming you accept what it tries to be over what it is.

    I find it disturbing that the film exalts Walt as the pinnacle of American manhood. Admittedly, his family members are acquisitive jerks to a one (a point which the film hammers home repeatedly, forcefully, and at unnecessary length), but I fail to see his nobility except in contrast.

    I basically agree, but I’m not sure that the film exactly intends to quite do this — even though it comes across that way. I do believe that the film attempts to sidestep this, but that attempt is too cerebral — and yet too hokey — to completely register. We have to go into the realm of…yes, SPOILERS to get to this, so read the following only if you’ve seen the movie or don’t care about such things….

    I cryptically reference this in the review by mentioning the reason for giving Walt consumption or lung cancer or whatever he’s dying from. I really do think this is to minimize the extent of his sacrifice at the end. Whether it conveys that effectively or whether it still comes across as “Walt Kowalski died for our sins” is another matter — and one not helped by the Christlike positioning of Walt at the climax of the big scene.

    Also, was I hallucinating, or was that a photo of Debbie Reynolds atop the coffin of Eastwood’s wife?

    Gee, thanks. Now I have to watch that part again to confirm your hallucination — or deny it.

  10. Ken Hanke

    The story kept me going all the way through and it reminds me of what I love most about Eastwood helmed films.

    It’s a personal thing, I guess, because little of what happened held any surprise for me.

    Interested to see your endorsement of digital. I had thought the question of its quality had become a non-issue (it might as well be, since Regal has signed to go all-digital, which means it’s gonna happen sooner rather than later), but I ran into several anti-digital posts in reading an online discussion about My Bloody Valentine 3-D. The claims that it’s inferior to 35mm continue to amaze me, because I don’t see it — and I frankly suspect neither could its detractors if they didn’t know what format they were watching, unless they spent the whole movie watching for cue marks.

  11. Sean Williams

    I’m actually surprised that this review has drawn so little wrath.

    I think yours is literally the only negative review on Rotten Tomatoes that has not yet accrued dozens of flames.

    I cryptically reference this in the review by mentioning the reason for giving Walt consumption or lung cancer or whatever he’s dying from.

    I’m pretty sure he’s suffering from G.M.C. — Gratuitous Movie Cancer. Poor Morgan Freeman has a recurrent case.

    Whether it conveys that effectively or whether it still comes across as “Walt Kowalski died for our sins” is another matter

    To Eastwood’s credit, he did try to illustrate the limitations of Kowalski’s worldview. But as you said, that point is understated and completely overshadowed by his pseudo-crucifixion.

    I suppose it’s a halfway decent film; I’m just always aghast at Eastwood’s clumsiness as a director.

  12. Ken Hanke

    I think yours is literally the only negative review on Rotten Tomatoes that has not yet accrued dozens of flames.

    Last I looked, someone actually had complimented my review — not that I go back to reviews there very much, often not at all. Since the level of discourse is name-calling of the most juvenile variety from people who know nothing or next to nothing about what they’re talking about, I don’t see the point.

    I suppose it’s a halfway decent film; I’m just always aghast at Eastwood’s clumsiness as a director.

    I’m not actually making a case for it as decent or halfway decent — merely as interesting and generally well-intented.

  13. Carmela

    Thank you for this honest review. Perhaps the Christlike Walt/Clint was a joke at people who take movies too seriously and the stars even more so. If it was, then Clint had the last laugh.

  14. Ken Hanke

    Perhaps the Christlike Walt/Clint was a joke at people who take movies too seriously and the stars even more so. If it was, then Clint had the last laugh.

    An interesting take and if it’s true then, yes, he’s got the last laugh.

  15. irelephant

    The only thing I would change about the movie would be the ending–not even a change, more of an alteration. When Thao is driving in the Gran Tarino and Clint Eastwood’s voice comes over the soundtrack singing about the car, I would have superimposed a ghostly Clint Eastwood head in the corner of the screen to sing to Thao. I s’pose that’s just my taste.

  16. Ken Hanke

    When Thao is driving in the Gran Tarino and Clint Eastwood’s voice comes over the soundtrack singing about the car, I would have superimposed a ghostly Clint Eastwood head in the corner of the screen to sing to Thao.

    I like it. Perhaps the DVD release could make this alteration.

  17. irelephant

    It is something to lobby for. I think that minor addition would turn Gran Tarino into a great picture. Something to cherish, beyond reasonable doubt or naysayers: the sum total would be shatteringly beautiful–not to put too fine a point on it. It just saddens me when great opportunities are missed, and Eastwood is too great a performer to miss out on such a splendid elegy for one of his most precious roles. Really, the picrure is about fathers and sons, and that craggy voiced ghost that sings over the closing credits touched my heart with the illimitable hand of pathos. I cried in that dark theater in which I witnessed this godsend of a movie. But only that one element was missing for me. I will require your name and celebrity, Mr. Hanke, to help me lobby for that alteration. Please, help me get Mr. Eastwood to finish this picture the right way. I can’t do it without you.

  18. Ken Hanke

    Something tells me I am the wrong person to assist in persuading Mr. Eastwood.

  19. irelephant

    from e.e. cummings:

    mister youse needn’t be so spry
    concering questions arty

    each has his taste but as for i
    i like a certain party

    give me the he-man’s solid bliss
    for youse ideas i’ll match youse

    a pretty girl who naked is
    is worth a million stautes

  20. Ken Hanke

    This may be merely a passing hallucination, but the typing style reminds me very much of that of nick/Nick, keeper of the flame for all things Mendesian. You do not suppose that the broken shift-key typing is, in fact, some sort of homage to e.e. cummings (no relation to venerable character actor E.E. Clive, who was himself no relation to Colin Clive, who in turn actually was a relation of Clive of India)?

  21. irelephant

    Maybe–but nick/Nick’s typography just doesn’t have the same verve. Thanks for the convoluted family histories. I’ve been a fan of e.e. cummings for years, had no idea he wasn’t related to so many people.

  22. Ken Hanke

    I’ve been a fan of e.e. cummings for years, had no idea he wasn’t related to so many people.

    I strive to be educational.

  23. David Irland

    I agree with most of your review, in fact, I’m glad somebody finally used the word “amateurish,” since Clint’s star-power seems to have deafened most of the world’s movie reviewers to the (mostly) pretty terrible script. But I liked it a lot anyway–I thought it was so crazily uneven that eventually it just sort of worked. And the scenes with the young Hmong girl (sue) had some kind of weird chemistry that held it together at least as much as Clint’s presence. Didn’t have a problem with the Christ ending. Whatever. It’s Clint Eastwood. First he’s Unforgiven, now he’s Forgiven. (But why did the gang members wait around for the cops?… uneven)

  24. Ken Hanke

    Didn’t have a problem with the Christ ending. Whatever. It’s Clint Eastwood

    I think that probably works better if the phrase “It’s Clint Eastwood” resonates with you.

    (But why did the gang members wait around for the cops?… uneven)

    To me, more uneven yet is the idea that Eastwood or Walt Kowalski have sufficient faith in the justice system that it’s assumed that this means all will be well for the two kids.

  25. Dave Irland

    “It’s Clint Eastwood” does resonate with me, though it doesn’t switch off my critical facility altogether

    “To me, more uneven yet is the idea that Eastwood or Walt Kowalski have sufficient faith in the justice system that it’s assumed that this means all will be well for the two kids.” Well, let’s see… the vigilante exorcises old regrets by martyring himself for a Hmong kid, his final act of redemption hinging on a self-contradiction, i.e. a sudden faith in the legal system he pretends to hold in contempt… nothing wrong with any of that, but kind of literary, obviously not what was intended. (we’re supposed to be enjoying the “happy/sad” ending, after all)

    The final question; did he KNOW a lot of this was hokum and just feel like he wanted a movie where he could sing over the closing credits? What happened between Changeling and this?

  26. Ken Hanke

    What happened between Changeling and this?

    Maybe he just wanted an easy-to-shoot crowd-pleaser. Or maybe he just wanted something to get the sound of Angelina Jolie yelling “my son” out of his ears. I could believe either one.

  27. David Irland

    I guess you don’t think much of our American Icon, Clint Eastwood. I like him, more or less–less would be Million Dollar Baby, more would be Unforgiven. But hey, he’s the guy who did Any Which Way But Loose, so I guess you never know which way he’s gonna break . . .

  28. Ken Hanke

    I guess you don’t think much of our American Icon, Clint Eastwood.

    I think I’d prefer to say that I don’t get the fuss over him. I find his insistence on making films his way worthy in itself. I find what he’s doing these days with all this de-mythification of heroes fascinating. I simply don’t find the films terribly compelling. It is perhaps a blind spot, though I’d stand by the assertion that Million Dollar Baby is just plain bad.

    But hey, he’s the guy who did Any Which Way But Loose, so I guess you never know which way he’s gonna break . . .

    I like a good orangutan movie as much as the next fellow, but that’s just no Dunston Checks In.

  29. Dave Irland

    Dunston Checks In is going in my Netflix queue!

    Awfully glad to find a kindred soul in hating Million Dollar Baby. It’s lonely out there.

    I completely agree about him “making films his way”–pretty endearing, I think, in a guy who lives in the corrupting ozone of hollywood. He really is a maverick–even if that means making weird amateurish stuff that doesn’t make much sense, late in his career…
    (Neil Young’s spiritual twin? too far fetched?)

  30. Kevin F.

    I don’t care for Eastwood much beyond Leone’s “Man With No Name” films. But I think that those are fantastic.

    And the Dirty Harry character wore out its welcome after the 4th sequel.

  31. Ken Hanke

    Neil Young’s spiritual twin? too far fetched?

    I have a hunch both gentlemen would be appalled at the suggestion. I can’t say it disturbs me, though.

  32. Ken Hanke

    I don’t care for Eastwood much beyond Leone’s “Man With No Name” films. But I think that those are fantastic.

    An orangutan would have improved them, though.

  33. Steven

    Someone tried to get you fired because of your Million Dollar Baby review?

  34. Ken Hanke

    Someone tried to get you fired because of your Million Dollar Baby review?

    That did appear to be the idea. You’d be surprised how very seriously and personally some people take reviews. I could understand it if it was your movie, but when it’s somebody else’s?

  35. Steven

    Just out of curiosity, has Clint Eastwood ever contacted your regarding your reviews?

  36. Ken Hanke

    Just out of curiosity, has Clint Eastwood ever contacted your regarding your reviews?

    No. It’s pretty rare for filmmakers to contact reviewers, I think. I’ve been contacted by I think five — and two screenwriters.

  37. Ken Hanke

    I take it they weren’t calling to compliment your reviews..

    Actually, they were. It mostly the province of nervous fanboys to attack a critic.

  38. james j catchpole

    Somehow I believe the viewer completely missed the point of this movie. He focuses much to much upon the making of the movie and the inexperienced actors while ignoring the powerful impact the story has for those willing to get lost in the story and its emotional impact.

  39. Ken Hanke

    No, the reviewer was prevented from getting lost in the impact (such as it was) of the story because of the way it was made and acted. I understood the point. That doesn’t mean I thought it achieved its aims — two very different things.

  40. what i like about this movie is the same thing i liked about the woody allen/larry david movie currently showing at the fine arts….the characters say what they are thinking…no political correct bs.

  41. I’m surprised you didn’t show a liking to this one Ken. I really liked this one, it was realistic and personally I know of a lot of people like crusty Walt Kowalski. I live in the Grosse Pointe area in Michigan, where the film was made. There’s a lot of diversity in our area, movie just felt so real to me. The acting was ok, but since the movie was so real to me I liked it a lot.

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