The movie features Clint Eastwood as an ornery old white war veteran stubbornly living in an increasingly run-down Detroit neighborhood that has been taken over by Hmong Asians. There’s culture clash, a lot of racial slurs thrown around, and most major American ethnicities get a cameo, including Hispanics and blacks.
Despite the racial overtones, it’s ultimately a heart-warming tale–a drama with comedic elements–where Clint Eastwood’s character Walt Kowalski becomes an adoptive father figure to the Hmong family next door, specifically the two teenage children. The son, Thao, he catches trying to steal his prized 1972 Ford Gran Torino muscle car as a gang initiation rite. The daughter, Sue, he saves from the sexual harassment of three random black gangbangers…and his own real-life son Scott Eastwood’s cringe-inducing “bro-ness”.
Clint Eastwood is hilarious as Walt, with his squinty-eyed disapproving growling being the reliable highs of the movie. The pinnacle would be his simmering rage on his birthday, sitting at the dining room table with a birthday cake before him, as his eldest son and daughter-in-law broach the subject of moving him into a retirement home (@0:41:55).
Lows of the movie would be the Hmong characters who repeatedly come across as unconvincing. Thao is for much of the movie so quiet and passive that his dejected head-hanging becomes obnoxious, to the point where Walt’s ribbing of him as a “pussy” doesn’t quite seem enough.
In contrast, Sue is a bit too precocious and a bit too audacious, giving a bit too much lip to the three thugs harassing her, and so forward in befriending the cantankerous white racist next door, even if he did stop and pull a handgun out in her defense. How did one kid grow up so meek and the other so bold?
Was that why there is the humorous scene where Thao’s mother and sister Sue simultaneously bark at him, shutting him up? Matriarchy and the subjugation of Asian men under the strong Asian women? Does that then explain why he’s lacking a father figure? Hm.
Three more irksome bits that were barely made up for by Clint Eastwood’s subtle facial expressions of consternation:
1. The awkward high-school video project acting at the construction site (@1:17:30).
If some runty kid I met for the first time just seconds ago tells me “the goddamn pricks at the shop want to bend me over for $2100”, I wouldn’t give him a job, much less bemoan being “fucked hard” for “just under $3200” over a transmission for my Chevy Tahoe. Who the hell has these kind of conversations in the context of interviewing for a construction job? This attempt to reiterate Thao applying the “manly banter” lessons that Walt just taught him was just way too forced.
2. The world’s slowest punch by the Hmong gang member (@1:21:05)
You would think Clint Eastwood could’ve–and would’ve–trained the actor better after Million Dollar Baby (Wikipedia).
3. Thao’s wholly unconvincing wailing after being locked behind the screen door to Walt’s basement at the film’s climax (@1:40:30).
Regardless of whether you’re pissed that your righteous vengeance is being taken from you, or despondent that your adopted father-figure–who more or less put you back on the path to manhood, got you a job, and also hooked you up with the girl you’re dating–is leaving you behind on a suicide mission, you would think you’d scream just a bit louder and thrash just a bit more violently at that screen door.
All the in-your-face “gooks”, “zipperheads”, and “colored peoples” along with the garden-variety racial stereotyping in the Gran Torino should’ve quickly clued viewers into the fact that this movie vaguely involves racism, isn’t afraid of depicting it, and thus probably includes quite a few inaccuracies about its portrayal of the Hmong culture it features most prominently.
People are going to dive into that and the whole “white man saves the minority” meta narrative, but at the end of the day, Gran Torino is a fairly simple story, of a broken man finding absolution at the end of his life. Despite my gripes with the acting by certain characters and in certain scenes, Clint Eastwood’s face throughout the film alone makes Gran Torino worth watching and chuckling to at least once.
Oh, and is that Clint Eastwood himself singing at the beginning of the credits?