Film Reviews

GRAN TORINO

By • Dec 17th, 2008 •

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(Warning: Last paragraph of the review contains major spoilers – As it is marked below, read at your own discretion.)

In Vincente Minnelli’s TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN (1962) Edward G Robinson plays a has-been Hollywood director who fights to stay relevant as he works on low-budget productions in Italy. Legitimately feeling that he is putting great work on celluloid, Robinson begins to fear that he may have lost touch with reality and his great days are behind him. Few are the directors who managed to stay relevant and vitalize their careers as the decades passed them. Some faded from the industry while making mediocre works, some decided to quit, and some were deemed irrelevant by the studios and were never able to raise money to make new pictures.

In the 1984 Clint Eastwood film, WHITE HUNTER, BLACK HEART, Eastwood plays a character based on director John Huston in the production story of THE AFRICAN QUEEN (1951). Huston was a rough and rugged man’s man, square jaw and all. So was Don Siegel, one of Eastwood’s great influences. Both, as directors, were able to reinvent themselves throughout their long careers and create work that was edgier, cooler and more engaging then anything young Hollywood had to offer. Eastwood follows in their path.

The last of the square-jawed heroes, Clint Eastwood is an enigma. He projects raw energy and pure force, not unlike that of Elvis or James Dean, and can give Lee Marvin and Steve McQueen a run for their money in the realm of ‘cool’. As an actor, his mere presence is enough to make every frame memorable. As a director, he is a man of action, focused on pure storytelling and so lacking of pretense that even his mediocre outings are greater then those who regularly dominate the box-office charts or award ceremonies. Such longevity is a true sign of greatness, and is why few reviews of new Clint Eastwood releases seem to be written without referring to the man himself.

GRAN TORNIO, Eastwood’s latest, is the story of Walt Kowalski, a recent widower and veteran of the Korean War. Walt has seen his generation slowly fade away and his neighborhood turn into a gang-infested ghetto. He is deemed irrelevant by society, even by his kids who try to send him to a retirement community, or his granddaughter who wants to inherit his Gran Torino, a car he built in the 1970s when working for Ford. Walt’s metaphorical demise is strengthened by the physical realities when a doctor informs him he is dying.

Walt Kowalski is that rugged man – the one with the square jaw – at 78. He has no sentiments for political correctness, is somewhat of a racist, and a rather hateful individual. His character is perfectly summed up in the opening scene, when he disapprovingly growls as he sees his granddaughter’s bellybutton-piercing at his wife’s funeral. (Eastwood’s growl alone demands an Academy Award nomination, if not the golden statue itself.)

A Hmong family moves into the house next to the Kowalski residence, consisting of a grandmother, her widow daughter and her two teenage kids, Sue and Thao. Although at first Walt is resistant to form any type of relationship with the Asian family, he soon strikes a friendship with Sue. After the emasculated Thao fails to steal his Gran Torino as a gang initiation test, Walt takes him under his wing and helps him reject the gang and reform. When the gang persists and all else fails, Walt sets up to fight them alone, taking upon himself the mantle of a vigilante.

There have been recent attempts to revive the vigilante genre, the ‘urban western’: Jody Foster in THE BRAVE ONE; Kevin Bacon in DEATH SENTENCE; The Rock in the remake of WALKING TALL; and the upcoming remake of DEATH WISH (by Sylvester Stallone). But no one can out-do Eastwood, who set the tone to the genre as DIRTY HARRY in 1971. GRAN TORINO was initially rumored to be an entry in the Dirty Harry series. Eastwood laughed the rumors off but the film is not far from it. Walt is portrayed with the same ferocious no-nonsense approach that characterizes many of Don Siegel’s heroes.

The beauty of GRAN TORINO as a vigilante film is that it embraces the fact that the hero is a dying 78-year-old man who has many limitations, even though we’d like to conceive of him as invincible. Walt represents the disintegration of that hero by having him face the changing landscape of the American suburb and American culture. Unlike the hero of the vigilante films, who is often haunted by a traumatic event to be redeem of, or take revenge for, Walt Kowalski’s redemption comes in the form of his relationship with Thao.

Walt becomes a father figure to Thao, who is surrounded and raised by 3 women. From Walt, Thao learns of cars, how to fix things around the house, and how to talk to girls – how to be a man. Walt is able to experience what he missed with his real sons, with whom he failed to establish any type of meaningful relationship. He finds a son to pass his wisdom to and help grow into his own.

A popular sub-genre of the Western in the 1970s was the end-of-the-West storyline. Two come to mind in discussion of GRAN TORINO. The Sergio Leone produced, Tonino Valerii directed, MY NAME IS NOBODY (1973), in which Henry Fonda plays Jack Beauregard, an old-West gun-slinging legend at the turn-of-the-century who can’t keep up with the times and wishes to retire. With the assistance of a young successor, Nobody (Terence Hill), Jack becomes a living legend by fighting alone against a group of 150 men and then fakes his own demise in a gunfight against Nobody, promising that instead of falling from grace would remain a legend in death, and helping to create a legend for a new generation – the man who killed Jack Beauregard.

The second is Don Siegel’s THE SHOOTIST (1976), which is interesting in considering GRAN TORINO, as the latter almost feels like an urban remake. Although not one of Siegel’s best directorial efforts, THE SHOOTIST is heartfelt and significant as John Wayne’s last film. Set at the turn-of-the-century, It tells the story of a J.B.Books, a legend of the old-West who is dying of cancer. When a doctor (James Stewart) informs him of his imminent death, J.B. is prompted to plan out his demise.

Like Walt Kowalski, J.B. is a relic of the West, a legend in name, but one who gets very little respect and finds very little to relate to in the changing landscape of 1901. He doesn’t have much to call his own other then his name and legend (which for Walt is represented by a chest of memorabilia from the Korean War), even those are in jeopardy when a young reporter suggests writing his biography, focusing solely on the bloody spectacle of his gun-slinging career, that everyone seems to detest.

J.B. takes a room in the house of widower Bond Rogers (Lauren Bacall), who resists him at first but warms up as she starts seeing beyond his violent reputation. Her son, Gillom (Ron Howard), constantly looks for father figures in the wrong places. After trying to sell J.B.’s horse, Dollar, behind his back, Gillom finds in J.B. a father figure to help shape him into a man and save him from associating with the bad crowd.

J.B. and Walt share a similar storyline; they represent a generation of men that finds itself lost to modernity as they pass their mantle to a new generation and bid goodbye to an old way of life. John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, in their respective roles, load the films not only with the weight of their personality, but being genre icons, carry a fistful of film history (pun intended) that makes their symbolism nothing short of poetic.

(Spoilers ahead…)

With the risk of losing his legendary reputation and afraid of his inescapable painful demise, J.B. decides to choose his own ending by calling out three of his enemies to a duel from which he doesn’t expect to come out alive. Walt, who is dying (the exact cause is never revealed), decides to sacrifice himself in a similar way, by orchestrating a duel of many against one. He acts to preserve the next generation, sacrificing himself to rid the neighborhood of a street gang so that Thao could have chance in life. Gillom inherits J.B.’s horse, Dollar. Thao gets the Gran Torino.

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