My first car was a 1996 black Acura Integra. No, it does not have the horsepower, the craftsmanship or even the beauty of a pristine 1972 Gran Torino that has been wiped down with a diaper almost every day since the day of its purchase. But, it was my Gran Torino. It was my first car. It was my first love. And then I crashed it into a tree and flipped over three times in Ohio. Then, my 1999 black Pathfinder became my new 1972 Gran Torino. Ah, the memories.
When we meet the less than friendly, more than slightly bigoted Korean War veteran Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood), he is at his wife's funeral, snarling at his self-centered children and his obnoxious and thoughtless grandchildren. It is not hidden that Walt is a man who is very set in his ways and demands respect (and if it's not given to him, he's not going to hide what he thinks of you). Whether he was always this angry and miserable a person when his wife was around is up for speculation, but it's impossible to believe he was a total bastard based on the way he speaks of her. As we dig deeper into Walt's life as the only remaining white person in a neighborhood overtaken by immigrants (mostly Hmong families), we see that calling him a crazy, old-fashioned, gun-toting, hateful bigot is something he would wear as a badge of honor rather than take to heart. And it's not just his Hmong neighbors that he greets with racial or ethnic slurs - he also greets his barber, drinking buddies, bartender, priest and, well, everyone with the same amount of disdain.
Shortly after Walt takes a rifle to the heads of gang members terrorizing Thao (Bee Vang), a quiet young Hmong boy who lives next door, on his property, Walt is seen as a hero to the Hmong community and their appreciation is shown by bringing him food, flowers and various other gifts (all of which are soon found in Walt's garbage can). It is not until Thao's sister, Sue (Ahney Her), a strong-minded, aggressive woman in her 20s, approaches Walt and doesn't back away from forging a friendship that Walt begins to show he has some sort of heart bubbling inside that cranky old body of his (despite the fact that he still talks to her, her family and all others in the community like he despises them, or like they're not there). He also begins to take Thao (who at one point tries to steal Walt's Gran Torino as an initiation to his cousin's gang) under his belt and teach him how to be a real man and not such a "pussy." He never softens, even as he let's new people, from cultures he ridicules with his language, into his life.
The character of Walt seems to combine a series of Eastwood's best roles throughout his career. He has a little gun-toting, Old West bad ass in him, like Blondie from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, or Will Munny from Unforgiven. He has the hard-nosed, never-say-die-or-back-down attitude of Inspector Harry Callahan from Dirty Harry. While he is a hardass, he is also blessed with the ability to throw out zingers (albeit unintentional and completely honest to the point where it's borderline comical) like he did as Tommy Nowak in Pink Cadillac (sorry, I liked it), or Nick Pulovski in The Rookie. Throw in your favorite senior citizen who still believes slavery was never abolished, hot dogs only cost a nickel, people still stand in line for bread, and randomly throws in various ethnic slurs while discussing what restaurant to go to that night, and you have Walt Kowalski.
Despite all the hatred I'm describing, there is something extremely compelling about Walt. There is more to him than meets the eye - part of that shines through when he begins to cough up blood while mingling with the Hmong's. You can tell he is haunted by memories of war. You can tell this man has a lot of rage built up inside. While there is plenty of the badass veteran you want to see more of, there are plenty of moments that make him so human and so real, you can feel everything he is feeling, whether it's sadness for being so alone, or rage for everything that is changing for the worse around him.
Eastwood is so good in Gran Torino that the other parts of the film don't have to be anywhere near as good - and, for the most part, they're not. The cast, with a few minor exceptions, is held merely to similar duties of scenery or props - they just have to be there, in the right place, to help the story advance. Her and Vang hold their own very well (despite some awkward moments where you feel they actually live on the block Eastwood decided to film on and said, "Hey, wanna be in a movie," in that famous rough voice of his), which is good considering they share the screen most with Eastwood. John Carroll Lynch as Barber Martin, Walt's equally racist barber, and Brian Haley, who plays Mitch, Walt's seemingly self-absorbed son who never really had a solid relationship with his father, also add to the story without doing anything to distract from it.
Christopher Carley, on the other hand, was kind of annoying as Father Janovich. I think it was the fact that his character was just a bit too pushy for me (that or the fact that he looks like the bastard child of Conan O'Brien and that fat kid from The Sandlot). Walt scorns his every advance to give a confession, yet he still comes back like he's a Meals on Wheel representative delivering food. It's great that there is a concerned priest, and someone who wishes to help, but some people don't want that help - and sometimes, someone trying to push help on someone, is kind of annoying. The same goes for the Hmong gang members, who were more annoying than actually threatening, or Walt's granddaughter, Ashley (Dreama Walker), who is just a terrible, heartless person.
Gran Torino is a great story and a great movie, largely because Eastwood is a great talent. Whether he's spitting out verbal attacks that would make most people shutter or disgusted at even the thought of these words being written down on paper for someone to say, or he's grilling hot dogs and hamburgers in the backyard telling a young Hmong boy he can take a girl out on a date in his most prized possession - his Gran Torino - Eastwood brings this intense, haunted character to life. He makes you feel every ounce of what Waly goes through on a daily basis - whether it's him struggling with the neighborhood he lives in, the kills he made during the war, or the fact that he is an old man who really doesn't know his children, you feel his pain. Eastwood is Gran Torino, and that is why Gran Torino is a must-see for everyone, not just fans of all his great work before this.
Is your engine still revving for more? Are you ready to melt those tires and scratch the rims of your car against the pavement? Are you ready to get new mats for under your feet while you're driving because the one's you currently have are kind of old and look like they've been stepped on with extra muddy shoes? Do you really want that air freshener there to make your car smelly like a pine cone, or a New York City cab? I hate those things. They're either too strong, not strong enough, or just smell like crap. Sorry, got sidetracked. Yes, there are features to Gran Torino - not a lot, but what is here is great stuff.
There are two sections to your special features, one is marked "Behind the Story," while the other is simply named "Extras." The first feature in the "Behind the Story" section is called, "The Eastwood Way," which explores Eastwood's "tradition of exploring the unconventional interpersonal relationships." The 19 minute documentary of sorts focuses on Eastwood's perspectives as the films director and star, and documents his efficient filming process. It features interviews with Eastwood, various producers and writers of the film, who talk about how the role seems to tailor Eastwood's career, which it does, even with the non-PC language that runs rampant through the film. Normally, I am not a fan of these types of "The Making of" features, but there's something about watching behind the scenes footage of a master of his art that draws you in. If this were a Michael Bay movie, chances are I wouldn't even think of turning it on (most likely because all he'll say is, "I like when things go boom"). But this is Eastwood, a Hollywood icon. This man knows what he's doing, and if you love film, the filmmaking process, or just Eastwood, it's great to get a look at his thought process.
The second feature in the "Behind the Story" section is called "Manning the Wheel." I love Eastwood's description of the film right off the bat in this feature: "It's not really a car picture. The car is just a symbol of part of Walt. Walt sort of is the Gran Torino." If this were a movie about a car, rather than a man who helped manufacture them and stayed in one spot throughout his life, it would not be as successful as it is. It wouldn't be an Eastwood movie. He studies the human emotion, not the engine of a vintage automobile. While the feature starts with interviews with Eastwood, Vang, writers, and producers, it kind of veers onto a different road, largely concentrating on the car, and Clint even talks about his first car - a 1932 Chevy coupe. This is what I love about the features for this movie. You have an old school actor/director who, yes, is participating in these behind the scenes features, but is not giving you the bullshit, "This movie is everything I could have hoped for," or, "We had so much fun making this movie together," responses. He's telling you about his life, his craft and his story. It's a great way to do a feature. Sure, he may be sitting in a sound studio, but the guy is just sharing his passion without the crap on the side.
The final feature in the section called "Extras," is just under four minutes long and is called, "Gran Torino: More Than a Car." This is not so much a feature about the movie as it is a feature about the car itself. In this short feature, you will visit Detroit and the Woodward Dream Cruise, an annual parade of vintage cars held at the major cruise center in Detroit during the 1950s and 60s. You will hear car buffs describe the unique bond between men and their cars. All right, this feature is not exactly up to par with the other two, it's kind of boring. But, two out of three ain't so bad. I mean, they're cool cars and all, but who cares? The movie is not about the car. I understand the movie is named Gran Torino, and there is a Gran Torino in it, but that doesn't mean I want an entire feature like this. I mean, if there was a movie called, "Corn Husking," and it had to do with a man playing football in a cornfield, I wouldn't want an actual feature about husking corn.