Much of the hubbub surrounding Gran Torino was that it was to be the final acting performance of Clint Eastwood. Taken as a whole, the acting career of Eastwood is something to be marveled at. Starting out with small roles in Westerns, he became the star of several Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns in the '60s, and moved onto Dirty Harry Callahan in the '70s and '80s. As he aged from his fifties to sixties, his choice of roles became more refined, and his increasing success as a director was part of this. While he will still direct films, after recently celebrating his 79th birthday, the work as an actor was apparently becoming too demanding. So as Walt Kowalski, the star of Gran Torino, we get a somewhat appropriate close to that acting work. As you'll discover, Kowalski is not unlike Dirty Harry in his mood and general demeanor.
Eastwood directs Nick Schenk's story, and in Kowalski, we see a Korean War veteran and retired auto worker who smokes unfiltered cigarettes, chews Red Man tobacco and drinks Pabst Blue Ribbon each day. He still lives in a neighborhood that one would presume would have been near the factory he worked at. The neighborhood has seen many friends and neighbors move out, with a more criminal element invading the streets. He lives next to a family of Laotian Hmongs, and bristles at the thought of any interaction with them. Often times, he sits on the porch with his dog and curses them under his breath or in some cases, to their faces. Walt is basically like Archie Bunker, minus the comfortable couch and loving wife (the film opens with her funeral and subsequent reception). One day, the young boy next door named Thao (Bee Vang) is caught trying to steal Walt's car, a 1972 Ford Gran Torino, and thus starts a relationship between the two that becomes a mentorship of sorts. Reluctant at first, Walt meets Thao's family, including his headstrong sister Sue (Ahney Her), and Walt learns that there might be more to these people than his preconceived stereotypes would lead him to believe.
The film's events unfold at such a pace that they could only be associated with other Eastwood films. Pedestrian, but not boring. The amount of time Walt spends on the porch, or doing random mundane acts, help show us he's got nothing left and nobody around that would temper him otherwise. In a sense, Eastwood probably could have made a two-hour long movie with Walt, his dog and his beer, sitting on his couch and swearing at people of random ethnicity and he would have been fine with it. Some of those "mundane" sequences include subtle reminders at how Walt's family thinks of him. His younger son Mitch and his wife Karen come to celebrate his birthday, and give him a phone with big number keys, drop some retirement home literature off with him to think over, and a cake that's clearly store bought, as shown on an overhead shot. They don't know what kind of life he leads, and the cake is basically a reminder of this. Those types of scenes belong in a Clint Eastwood film.
The other scenes don't, and unfortunately most of those comprise the story itself. Thao is almost dragged into a car by his cousin and his friends. Those friends are part of a gang, a gang that Thao is almost certain to join, without any suitable guidance from a father figure. Walt's lawn gets disturbed during this process, and combine this with a "Get Off my Lawn" line that only a geriatric Dirty Harry could utter with crowd reception, and you've got the main plots of the last two acts laid out rather nicely for you. In fact, the Walt-Thao relationship in the film is the weakest in the film. It's rather conventional and a little funny. Walt has Thao work on some household projects in and around the neighborhood, and it feels like an inverse Miyagi of sorts. When the gang members invoke a little bit of payback to Thao and his family, Thao keeps asking Walt (shoot, everyone keeps asking Walt) what he's going to do, and Walt keeps saying that some time has to be put into the plan, etc. But in this run-up to Walt's plan, I kind of felt like I was watching "Bart the General," that Simpsons episode when Bart talks to Herman, the guy who runs the surplus store, and asks him for help in fighting Nelson. It's not that I was frustrated by the film, it's just that, compared to other Eastwood films, these things just don't feel suitable for the man himself.
Ultimately, Gran Torino might not necessarily be a worthwhile note of closure for fans of Clint Eastwood's acting work, but when you consider how some of Eastwood's older work figures into his final work, it's a nice note to end on. Not necessarily good, but just.
Presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, Eastwood and longtime cinematography collaborator Tom Stern replicate the look of previous films fairly successfully here. There's a lot of natural light in the feature which is replicated well without too much over saturation, flesh tones are pretty exact, and the blacks look quite sharp. Film grain became excessive and distracting at times, which might disappointing
Dolby Digital 5.1 surround, things seem to sound pretty well. The film itself is mostly dialogue driven, but you get subwoofer activity in the gangster rap blaring from cars, and directional effects from doorbells, with crowd noise that is immersive and makes you feel park of a crowded house. The dialogue levels are slightly inconsistent, and I had to crank the film's volume at times, but otherwise this was decent listening material.
Eastwood-helmed DVDs aren't usually balls-out in terms of extras, and Gran Torino is no different. "Manning the Wheel" (9:22) examines the symbolism of the car for Eastwood's character, and the meaning of the car in the movie. Eastwood talks about his first car and his thoughts on cars in general, with some dream car choices shared. OK for its length. "More Than a Car" (3:57) looks at the importance and meaning of cars, or muscle cars in this case, for men and how they are more than just a lure for gear heads, along with footage from a cruising event in Michigan. A digital copy of the film is also available, however it's not compatible for iTunes users.
As a director Clint Eastwood is still attracting top shelf actors and fascinating material. The problem is that the material in Gran Torino is a little too predictable for such an accomplished creative voice. And much of the cast, many of whom are appearing in their first film, show their greenness. Technically the disc is okay, even if the extras are on the light side, but if you're going to see Gran Torino see it for the fact that you're not going to see Eastwood handle this much screen time again at his age. That in and of itself is notable, even if the film isn't.