You can take Clint Eastwood out of the “Dirty Harry” movies, but you can’t take Dirty Harry out of ol’ Clint. So it would seem upon viewing “Gran Torino,” an Eastwood-directed film in which the 79-year-old plays a tough retiree who goes vigilante to take on gangbangers terrorizing his neighborhood.
Back in the day, Eastwood’s rogue cop, “Dirty” Harry Callahan, was a snarling avenger who would stare down the barrel of his massive Magnum .44 and contemptuously dare some low-life to “go ahead, make my day.” Audiences loved it not just because Clint had perfected steely menace, but because people were tired of all the crime and craziness of the inner city and the supposed liberal mollycoddling that let the muggers and junkies run wild. It was no coincidence that in many of these films the lowlifes were minorities. (Harry himself, was a guy who equated “the minority community” with “hoods.”) Like it or not, the films tapped into a very white sense of insecurity.
On one level, nothing has changed some three decades on. In “Gran Torino,” Clint displays the same old line-in-the-sand machismo when he confronts a trio of homeboys looking to rape a young girl. Whipping out a handgun, he snarls: “Ever notice how you come across somebody once in a while who you shouldn’t have f–ked with? That’s me.”
I’m sure you can hear the audience cheering already, and it’s no surprise that “Gran Torino” shot to No. 1 at the U.S. box office: Everybody likes to see jerks get their due. But there’s a big difference here too: Clint’s vigilante may be fighting Asian gangstas, but he’s doing so to protect his Asian neighbors.
You could say “Gran Torino” is a “red-state” character coming to terms with a “blue-state,” multicultural America. Clint’s retiree, Walt Kowalski, a union man and Korean War vet, lives in a once-proud but now dilapidated blue- collar neighborhood where he’s the last white guy on the street. Surrounded by Hmong immigrants from Vietnam and Cambodia, their big families, strange cooking and unfathomable customs all combine to really p-ss him off. He mows his lawn grumbling about “zipperheads” and “gooks,” and the American flag that flies from his porch seems like an act of defiance.
When Walt’s neighbor, a shy kid named Thao (Bee Vang), tries to steal his pride and joy, a vintage 1972 Gran Torino, Walt gets fired up, pulling out a rifle and daring the gangbangers to make his day.
But when Walt gets to know Thao’s sister, Sue (Ahney Her), he rather unexpectedly likes her — she’s as cantankerous as he is.
Through Sue, Walt learns that Thao’s gangsta cousin forced him to try and steal the car, and Walt takes pity on the boy, trying to put him on the straight and narrow. But Walt soon realizes that as long as those gangbangers are around, Thao and Sue don’t have a chance. The eye-for-an-eye realities of gang feuds mean the situation is soon spiraling out of control.
“Gran Torino” is a minor gem of a drama, which delivers laughs, tears, suspense, and those infinitely quotable showdowns, too. Nick Schenk’s script does seem to hew close to the formula that worked so well with “Million Dollar Baby” — gruff old-timer slowly warms to younger generation friend, forms a kind of parent-child bond, and has to make a painful decision in the end — but I would argue that “Gran Torino” is even better, as it’s less manipulative in making its point.
How long is it before everyone recognizes what a fantastic director Eastwood has matured into? Everyone says Martin Scorsese is a genius, and who’s to argue? But if you look at the last decade or so — Eastwood’s “Mystic River,” “Million Dollar Baby,” and “Flags of Our Fathers” vs. Scorsese’s “The Departed,” “The Aviator” and “Shine a light” — Eastwood wins hands down. His films are done in more of a classical style, minus the flourishes that define someone like Scorsese. Eastwood will never use 10 shots when one will suffice, and he makes you care about his characters by making them fully alive in a way that has eluded Scorsese since 1993’s “Age of Innocence.” His narratives are never as straight as they may seem, and bifurcate or veer off into unexpected directions.
With “Gran Torino,” Eastwood wrestles with the tension between Catholicism and violence, between ideals and corruption . . . you could say stealing a theme from Scorsese (“Mean Streets” et al). Walt’s parish priest (Christopher Carley) engages him in a number of conversations — often quite humorous — about life and death. Digging to the core of Walt’s anger, the priest finds old wounds from Walt’s wartime service, particularly Walt’s belief that blood on one’s hands does not easily wash off. What this film makes painfully clear — as does “Mystic River,” “Unforgiven,” and even “Million Dollar Baby” — is that killing someone is no easy thing, but rather an act with unimaginable consequences. He’s no longer making Dirty Harry movies, as Eastwood has moved deeper within, without, and beyond that old persona.