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So now we know what became of Dirty Harry.
In “Gran Torino,” Clint Eastwood plays a retired auto worker in Michigan who could literally stand in for his iconic character a quarter of a century later. Crotchety as hell and a gun never far from his side, Harry — sorry, Walt Kowalski — lives a sullen, solitary life in a deteriorating blue-collar neighborhood where nonwhite and immigrant faces constantly irritate him. Indeed everything from the rundown funk of the ‘hood to his blase grown children and their punk kids irritates him. A scowl chiseled into his gruff, stony face, he spits foul-mouthed commentary and racial epithets from the side of his mouth about everyone he sees.
Eastwood has always had the gift for comedy in his acting repertoire, but he indulges in it only rarely. His fans might embrace this return to comedy, but those expecting something more in the vein of recent Eastwood incarnations as an actor (“Million Dollar Baby”) or director (“Changeling,” “Letters From Iwo Jima”) may be in for a disappointment. So it’s up to Warner Bros. marketing to make that distinction prior to release for “Gran Torino” to gain boxoffice traction.
The movie itself, directed by Eastwood and written by Nick Schenk (from a story he wrote with Dave Johannson), is an unstable affair given to overemphasized points and telegraphed punches. It lacks the subtlety of Eastwood’s recent efforts, but then again, the film must be seen in the mode of “Dirty Harry reunites with his ‘Every Which Way but Loose’ orangutan” — only this time it’s an aging dog named Daisy.
Seated on his immaculate front porch with a steady supply of beer, Walt stews in the bile of his own hatred of anything contemporary seasoned with bitter, soul-shattering memories of the Korean War. He acknowledges Hmong neighbors only with a sneer until the next-door kid tries to steal his beloved 1972 Gran Torino.
Walt prevents the theft and confronts the Hmong gangbangers who ordered the attempt. This turns him into something of a hero to the mother and older sister Sue (Anhey Her). There follows lowbrow comedy about gifts and food turning up on his porch until the food — and beer — win him over.
As face-saving penitence, the would-be thief named Thao (Bee Vang) — Walt insists on calling him Toad — is commanded by his mother to work off his debt to Mr. Kowalski. This predictably leads to a curt friendship between the two males separated by a generation, Walt’s involvement in the immigrant community and ultimately his intercession on Thao’s behalf with the gangbangers to tragic consequences.
That this mostly comic film turns tragic is a foregone conclusion as this mood change is signaled all along. (When a character spends an entire film coughing up blood, we don’t imagine he’ll be around at the end.) Yet Eastwood’s direction cannot always smooth out the unevenness and forced situations in Schenk’s script.
The story also betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of how gangs operate. They are multigenerational organizations with a structure and hierarchy. The elimination of a half-dozen fools will not destroy a gang.
The Hmong actors, Her and Vang, are exceptional; you can tell Eastwood spent time on their scenes to let the shine. The other young actors — Latino, black and Asian — all must play gangster cliches. Christopher Carley as a fresh-from-the-seminary priest and John Carroll Lynch as Walt’s barber who joins with his client to “man up” the defenseless Thao deliver well-played comic characters. As for Eastwood, his bark is much worse than his bite.
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