2008's Gran Torino saw actor/director Clint Eastwood get in front of the camera for the first time since 2004's Million Dollar Baby. While it's quite likely that this will be Clint's last shot in front of the camera, which would be a damn shame, at least he'll be going out on a high note.
Eastwood plays Walter Kowalski, an aging Korean War veteran who, at the beginning of the film, is burying his wife. Estranged from the rest of his family, who he considers a bunch of spoiled brats, Walt spends most of his spare time sitting on the porch with his old dog, Daisy, sucking back cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon and complaining about the state of the neighborhood he's lived in for the last half a century. Walt is the very embodiment of the crotchety old man, and he has no qualms about vocally expressing his distaste for foreigners of all kinds. When a family of Hmong moves in next door, he spits on their lawn and continually refers to them as gooks. Calling Walt an asshole would be kind.
The young man of the house next door, Thao (Bee Vang), is a quiet kid who would rather spend time gardening than hanging out with others kids, while his sister, a smart-ass named Sue (Ahney Her) is hopeful that she'll be able to stop her brother from falling in with a Hmong gang lead by their cousin. Thao eventually gives in to pressure and the gang pressures him into trying to steal Walt's car, a mint condition 1972 Ford Gran Torino Fastback. The plan doesn't go quite so well, however, as Walt catches Thao in the act. Having learned his lesson, Thao decides he wants nothing to do with the gangsters and eventually, as Walt grows ever more distant from and unable to relate to his family, he strikes up an awkward friendship with the two Hmong teenagers. The gang, however, isn't happy with the way that they've stood up to them, and so they retaliate in kind. As Walt wrestles with his own personal demons and health problems, he finds himself an unwitting protector of these people who he once professed to hate.
There's a scene early on in the film at the funeral for Walt's wife where the young Catholic priest, Father Janovich (Christopher Carley), notes that funerals are 'bittersweet' because, while it sucks to lose someone you care about, you can take solace in knowing they've found peace. This is a theme that runs throughout Gran Torino, as we witness Walt evolve from a bitter, lonely and angry racist to a man who proves he actually can care about people, even if he has trouble expressing it the way a more adjusted person might. In many ways, Kowalski's journey in this film is similarly bittersweet, as in his own way he finds his salvation through Thao and Sue. Eastwood really makes his performance here count, portraying Walt as equal parts frightening, sympathetic and pathetic but never less than completely believable. As his relationship with Thao and Sue develops, he becomes almost a father figure to them, taking Thao under his wing and teaching him the way he never really taught his sons and relating to him in a way that has evaded his relationship with his own children and grandchildren.
Shot in Michigan, the film looks fairly bleak, as it should, accurately representing the area's depressed economic climate through its weathered houses that look as old and run down as Kowalski himself. There's an air of sadness to the picture that contrasts in a very interesting way with the humor (none of which is politically correct and almost all of which is blatantly racist) that plays such an important part in the picture and in Kowalski's relationship with his neighbors.
The story, from Dave Johannson and Nick Schenk, fleshes out Kowalski quite nicely. We learn just enough about his past to at least partially understand him but not so much that some of the mystery behind his character doesn't work. The similarities between Kowalski and Eastwood's better known 'Dirty' Harry Callahan are hard to ignore and at times this film does feel like the sequel that it was rumored to have been, particularly when a gun toting Kowalski is starring down a gang of thugs and it's maybe not out of line to think that these two characters exist in the same sort of universe. Supporting performances from the aforementioned Vang and Her flesh out the cast nicely, as does some welcome comedic support from John Carroll Lynch (probably best known for his role in Fincher's Zodiac) who plays Kowalski's surly barber and from Carley who plays the priest. Eastwood has surrounded himself with talented people here, though this is his show all the way.
Gran Torino arrives on Blu-ray in a very nice 2.40.1 1080p VC-1 encoded high definition anamorphic widescreen transfer. This isn't a particularly colorful film so don't expect bright colors to leap off the screen and grab you by the throat. This transfer does, however, feature some very nice fine detail and a strong, clean, image. Facial close ups look great, as you can see pretty much every line on Walt's weathered and worn face which makes for an interesting contrast with the youthful visages of Thao and Sue. While colors aren't overly bright, they are reproduced quite faithfully here, never looking artificially pumped up or over saturated and there are moments where the color really does stand out quite nicely against the bleak backdrop - look at the American flag that hangs off of Walt's porch or the colors of the food that the neighbors bring him. Black levels are strong and inky while shadow detail remains quite good. Skin tones look very lifelike and very natural and there are no problems with mpeg compression artifacts or edge enhancement to report. All in all, the movie looks very good on this disc.
Audio options are supplied in English language Dolby TrueHD 5.1, Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound, French Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound, Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound and Portuguese Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound with optional subtitles available in English SDH, French, Spanish and Portuguese.
As far as the quality goes, again, Warner Brothers has left very little room to complain. Eastwood's raspy voice can be just a little hard to decipher at first until you get used to it, but this track is solid through and through. The levels are nicely balanced and there's nice, strong bass used throughout the film - you'll notice this whenever one of the gangbangers' cars drives by with the music blaring. Dialogue is generally clean and clear and there are no problems whatsoever with any hiss or distortion. Surround usage is good and while the film doesn't always call for a lot of rear channel activity, you'll notice some subtle effects scattered appropriately throughout the film that add some welcome audible detail to different scenes. The Hmong BBQ which Kowalski attends is a good example, as you'll notice different conversations and background effects placed in such a way as to make you feel like you're in the room.
The extras on this release aren't quite as extensive as they probably could have been, which is slightly disappointing. Thing kicks off with a twenty minute featurette entitled The Eastwood Way. Exclusive to the Blu-ray release, this is a decent look behind the scenes of the movie featuring some input from Eastwood himself as well as from the cast and crew members who worked with him on this picture. Writer Nick Schenck talks about the story and notes that the part was not specifically written with Eastwood in mind, though others point out quite rightfully how Walter Kowalski does feel like an extension of 'Dirty' Harry Callahan. Aside from that, input from the Hmong cast members explains how Eastwood took great pride in portraying their culture as accurately as possible and some interesting behind the scenes footage shows us what it was like on the set of the film.
Two other shorter featurettes are also included. Gran Torino: More Than A Car is a four minute segment that takes us to Detroit for the Woodward Dream Cruise where vintage car enthusiasts discuss the uniquely masculine bond between cars and their male owners. This is a moderately interesting piece though its too brief to really offer more than just some very simple insight. Some input from the filmmakers on the importance of the car and what it represents in the movie makes this worth a watch though. Manning The Wheel is a similar piece that further explains why 'car guys' are the way that they are with a few enthusiasts offering up some personal stories about why their vehicles are more to them than just a mode of transportation.
Animated menus and chapter stops are included as is a second disc containing a digital copy of the film. All of the extras on this release are presented in high definition.
Alternately humorous, moving, and tense, Gran Torino really lets Eastwood strut his stuff as both an actor and a director. His performance, a brave and memorable one, really shines and the movie stands as a testament to his abilities. The story is smart and entertaining and the picture remarkably well made. Warner's Blu-ray release doesn't impress in terms of supplemental material but it looks and sounds very nice indeed and it comes highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.