Gran Torino is a Clint Eastwood film — what, he’s still alive? — and it’s about a grouchy old fella who is hard-core racist but then gets involved with the Asian family next door and, would you believe it, discovers they are quite decent, really. This is probably not a very good film. It is clunky, corny, overblown and so obvious it even features one of those early-on coughs you know isn’t going to pan out as good news. One day, I would like to see a non-meaningful cough in a film; would like to hear a doctor say, ‘The tests are back and it’s nothing, a tickle…’ It’s a small dream of mine. (I was always told to dream big, but never had the time or the energy.)
Now, where were we? Oh, yes. It’s probably not a very good film but you know what? It’s not a very good film but is good nevertheless. I know! Crazy! How does that work? It works because it’s a Clint Eastwood film. With any other actor, Gran Torino would be what it is — a sentimental, possibly unbearable fable about a coughing bigot redeemed — but, with Clint as star and director, this is as much about Clint’s own cinematic history, and the power of that, as anything, and it’s both fascinating and enthralling. By cinematic history, I am talking about the macho, anti-hero roles of the spaghetti westerns and Dirty Harry rather than the one he did with the monkey. I’m talking about Clint as that lone instrument of vengeance. Actually, another small dream of mine is to see Eastwood in a film where, before he does anything, he turns up at his local Citizens Advice Bureau and asks, ‘Where does the law stand on this and how might I best operate within it?’ And if he then gave a non-meaningful cough, that would be great. It would make my day.
Here, Clint stars as Walt ‘call me Mr Kowalski’ Kowalski, a Korean war veteran and retired Ford car worker who lives in a Detroit neighbourhood which was once blue-collar, white Americans but is now dominated by immigrants. Walt doesn’t like his grown-up sons, doesn’t like his grandchildren, doesn’t like Jews — ‘What are you, half Jew?’ he asks the barber who charges him ten bucks for a haircut — doesn’t like Italians, doesn’t like Mexicans, doesn’t like blacks and, in particular, doesn’t like the Hmong family who live next door. This family are a grandmother, a mother, her quietly intelligent teenage son, Thao (Bee Vang) and his feisty sister, Sue (Ahney Her). Mr Kowalski spends most of his time drinking beer on his veranda while hurling snarling, hoarse-voiced insults at them. He calls them ‘gooks’, ‘slopes’, ‘zipper heads’, ‘swamp rats’, and when he accepts an invitation to a barbecue and then runs dry, it is, ‘Get me another beer, dragon lady.’ Generally, I’m thinking Walt Kowalski wouldn’t go down well in a BBC green room after, say, an edition of The One Show. I don’t know why I think this — it’s just a feeling more than anything else — but I do. The one thing Mr Kowalski does like, by the way, is his car, his 1972 Gran Torino which he keeps all polished and buffed in his garage, as a symbol, perhaps, of the America he once knew, understood and treasured.
Actually, there is no ‘perhaps’ about it. This isn’t a subtle film, not in its metaphors, nor in its good-guy/bad-guy narrative which, come to think of it, may in itself be a homage to the Clint oeuvre. Thao is a good guy but the local bad guys, the local Asian gang, are determined to recruit him. They turn up one night to take him forcibly but who also turns up, with a bloody great gun? Yup, Mr Kowalski, who says to one of the gang members, ‘I’ll blow a hole in your face and then go inside and sleep like a baby.’ How Clint is that? But, more, it’s Clint satirising his own myth. In another instance, when he sees Sue being harassed on the streets by a trio of thugs, he parks up, steps out and says, ‘Ever come across someone once in a while you shouldn’t f*** with? That’s me.’ Clint is 78. Clint looks 78 and even wears the kind of old man’s chest-high trousers Robert Redford wouldn’t be caught dead in. Clint shouldn’t be able to see off three big yobs but he can and does because of the power of the cinematic history. Is it starting to make sense now?
Eventually, Mr Kowalski becomes not just a friend to the ‘zipheads’, but also their protector as he himself gets caught up in the gang wars and the back and forth of inevitable, escalating violence. There is plenty of bloodshed, but also many lighter, comedic moments, particularly in the scenes where he is seduced by next door’s food. It is a flawed movie, vastly overwritten, with characters pointing things out that we’ve long worked out for ourselves. (For example, Mr Kowalski says to himself at one point, ‘I have more in common with these gooks than I do my own spoiled, rotten family.’ Thanks, Mr K, but we’d rather gathered that.) Still, the self-referentiality of Eastwood’s performance ensures that Gran Torino isn’t just absorbing, but also moving. The ending is preposterous, way over the top, but, still, I bawled my little eyes out. I wish I didn’t cry so easily. That’s another small dream of mine. All these small dreams! I should have just gone for one big one!