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Gran Torino – Movie Review

February 1, 2009 Written by JP    [Font too small?]

From the moment you see the sour expression, the squinting eyes and deep wrinkles on his face, you begin to understand exactly who Walt Kowalski is. Mr. Kowalski, as portrayed by Clint Eastwood, is an angry old Korean war vet who’s just lost his one connection to humanity – his wife of nearly fifty years. We first meet him at her funeral. And it’s a strong impression that he makes.

You see, Walt doesn’t much like anybody – his kids or grandkids, the local preacher and especially not his new neighbors. The only people he seems to get along with are those from his own generation who’ve never heard and certainly never embraced the concept of political correctness. Trading racial slurs, to them, is second nature and a sign of being “real men”.

But life has some surprises in store for Walt. His new next door neighbors, in his Detroit suburb, are a family of Hmong immigrants. The Hmong are an Asian ethnic group that resides in several countries Southeast Asian countries including Burma, China, Laos and Vietnam. During the Vietnam war, many of the Hmong fought on the side of United States. After the war ended, they were the subject of much persecution in their native lands. As a result, many Hmong were offered refuge in the United States and other Western countries.

Other things are also changing in the neighborhood. Gangs are beginning to flourish. This unwelcome shift is thrust upon Clint Eastwood’s character while he’s sleeping one night. He’s wakened by sounds coming from his garage. But this is no ordinary garage, in it is Clint’s prized possession – a 1972 mint condition Gran Torino. He put the car together himself while working for Ford more than 35 years prior. So Clint grabs his Korean war rifle and charges the garage. Someone is trying to steal his Gran Torino! Clint’s ready to put an end to the theft by way of a bullet, but he slips and falls and the thief escapes.

What kind of a badger would try to steal his car? Was it the gangs? Some crazed drug addict? It turns out that the guilty one is the quiet son of the Hmong family next door. He’d been intimidated into stealing the car as part of a gang initiation.

Based on how I’ve described Clint Eastwood’s character, you might imgine that this young man’s very life would be in danger. But you can’t always know a man by the image that he projects. The teen-aged daughter (played by Anhey Her), of the Hmong family, knows this. She’s wise beyond her years. And it is her generosity of spirit and willingness to see beyond Walt’s gruff exterior that transforms his life and that of her family and even the neighborhood.

I won’t reveal any more of the plot. While I was watching the film, at times I felt as if I was seeing something familiar. There were also some moments when I questioned how realistic some of the plot twists were. But all the while, I couldn’t help but enjoy the ride. Clint Eastwood is a master filmmaker, and, in this film, he has a good story to tell.

In some ways this felt like an old fashioned movie. A film that Mr. Eastwood might of made 25 years ago. But just as I was having that impression, the film took some unexpected turns. I may be reading too much into this, but I feel as if these plot turns are similar to the evolution that may have personally occurred in Mr. Eastwood’s life. Early in his career, he thrived professionally by glorifying violence. In his golden years, he’s tried to change any misconceptions that his earlier work may have promoted. Violence is ugly. It is something to be avoided whenever possible. It scars the soul. But redemption is always possible.

In the hands of lesser filmmakers, this could have been a mindless film about revenge and racial animosity. This film is much better than that. It has a greater objective in mind. And even with all its flaws, I do believe it accomplishes what it sets out to do. It sends a positive message that feels plausible, in the midst of all the hatred that often surrounds us in the very real world.

Gran Torino is Rated R for lots of harsh language, including many racial slurs. It has its share of graphic violence. I think it’s too intense for younger viewers, but would be suitable for teenagers, especially if they can see it with their parents or a good adult role model.

Be well!


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