At this point in his career, when Clint Eastwood stars in and directs a film, all bets are off. Things that would be old-school and sentimental in other hands morph into something different when he is involved. If Tina Turner’s motto is that she doesn’t do anything nice and easy, Eastwood’s would be that the ordinary is just not his style. ¶ Which brings us to “Gran Torino,” Eastwood’s second directing project this fall, his first work as an actor since 2004’s “Million Dollar Baby” and a film that would be less interesting if he were not involved. ¶ Working from a script by first-time screenwriter Nick Schenk, Eastwood has, with his impeccable directing style and acting presence, turned “Gran Torino” into another in his ongoing series of films that ponder violence, its place and its cost. It combines sentiment and shootouts, the serious and the studio, in a way that has become distinctly Eastwood’s own.
It is also a film that is impossible to imagine without the actor in the title role. The notion of a 78-year-old action hero may sound like a contradiction in terms, but Eastwood brings it off, even if his toughness is as much verbal as physical. Even at 78, Eastwood can make “Get off my lawn” sound as menacing as “Make my day,” and when he says “I blow a hole in your face and sleep like a baby,” he sounds as if he means it.
Eastwood plays retired worker Walt Kowalski (a distant relation of Brando’s Stanley, perhaps), a man with a formidable scowl and the temperament to go with it. Kowalski is Mr. Fed Up, someone with a bad word for everyone, whether it be feckless sons, pierced grandchildren or priests he considers to be too young to pry into his life.
Newly widowed, Kowalski is especially upset with changes going on in his Detroit neighborhood. Hmong immigrants, refugees from Southeast Asia and especially Vietnam, where the Hmong helped American troops during the war, have moved in everywhere, even next door.
An equal-opportunity bigot whose R-rated language (“fishheads” is about the only printable epithet he uses) flays all immigrant groups equally, Kowalski’s blinding prejudice comes in part from memories of experiences in the Korean War he is doing his best to repress.
This role may sound like standard Archie Bunker, but it is hard to resist when Eastwood, an actor with presence to burn and who snarls dialogue like a cornered wolf, takes it on. Perhaps the best thing about Schenk’s script is that it enticed Eastwood to end his self-imposed acting hiatus and bring his one-of-a-kind aura back to the screen.
Classically against his will, Kowalski is drawn into the life of the neighborhood, specifically the plight of Thao (Bee Vang), the fatherless teenage boy next door who is being pressured to join a local Hmong gang and foolishly attempts to steal Kowalski’s prize Ford Gran Torino. Kowalski also likes the sassiness of Thao’s slightly older sister Sue, played by Ahney Her, an actress who like the rest of the neighbors is a member of the Hmong community.
As this closeness grows, “Gran Torino” will start to feel familiar and create concern that this is all there is to the film. It is familiar, but only to a point. Suddenly, that point is past and much more serious questions come up, questions of responsibility, of vengeance, of the efficacy of blood for blood.
These questions seem to take Kowalski himself by surprise. It’s almost as if Clint Eastwood all at once finds himself in a different movie than either he, or us, really expected. But if the last few years have proved anything, it’s that anywhere Eastwood is, movie audiences are wise to follow.