WARNING: SOME SPOILERS AHEAD!
Let’s cut to the chase. If you’re a fan of Clint Eastwood’s stripped down directorial style, then you’ll love Gran Torino. If you’re in for some bang bang, pow wow or a stylised joyride then you’re better off looking somewhere else.
While the title might lead you to think otherwise, Gran Torino is first and foremost a drama.
So if you’re hoping to see some heavily modified hot rims burn up an illegal street circuit or sweaty hot race queens throwing themselves all over burly men, then you’ll disappointed.
The only hot set of wheels here is a mint 1972 Ford Gran Torino Sport and there is no race action at all. Zilch. Nada. Nil. None.
Hot girls in barely there outfits? Nope. But there is Clint Eastwood nude in the bathtub if you want (be nice, Eastwood’s already 78 years old).
Gran Torino has Eastwood written all over it. Apart from directing the film, he also helms the role of co-producer and stars as the main character, Walt Kowalski, in the story.
As with his other films, Eastwood chooses to focus on a few main characters and fully develop on them and their relationships (think Sean, Jimmy and Dave in Mystic River and, Maggie and Frankie in Million Dollar Baby).
In the case of Gran Torino, it is the relationship between Walt and his Hmong (a group of hill tribal people from Vietnam, Thailand, Laos and Myanmar) neighbours – specifically teenagers Thao and his elder sister, Sue.
Walt is an all-American war veteran, who lives alone (save for his beloved pet dog, Daisy) and is estranged from his 2 sons.
Thao, on the other hand, is a young boy struggling to find himself and keep away from the gangs that run the neighbour, while Sue is a feisty, well-educated teenager who isn’t afraid to speak her mind.
While Walt starts off less than pleased (an understatement) with his Hmong neighbours at the beginning of the film, he slowly starts to form a bond with Sue and Thao through a series of incidents in the neighbourhood. He even takes the latter under his wing, imparting construction and repair skills to him.
Unlike Eastwood’s previous works, Gran Torino has a great balance of heartwarming humour and melodrama. The former is generated not so much by jokes or physical comedic antics but by how Walt (in his old school ways) interacts with the Hmongs and their vastly different culture.
It is not surprising for audiences to find Walt an endearing character perhaps reminiscent of their own grandparents.
Stylistically, the film is shot in a beautiful cinematic style that goes beyond just making the film a pretty picture, and aids in the storytelling.
A simple example of this is evident from how, instead of showing Walt blowing his top at his eldest son and daughter in-law, Eastwood chooses to cut straight from showing Walt shaking in a fit of rage, to the son and his wife leaving his apartment regretting their decision to drop by Walt’s house.
Gran Torino, by any measure, is far from being a perfect film though.
While the music is well suited to the film for the most part, the military snare drums that come on every time Walt picks up a gun is a tad too cheesy for my liking. While it will help audiences relate that Walt is relying on his past military experience, it makes it too obvious for my comfort.
Another major flaw in the film is the acting. Though Eastwood’s skilful acting is convincing and top notch, that cannot be said of the other actors – specifically Bee Vang, who plays Thao.
Newcomer Bee Vang is perhaps the film’s weakest link. Like his character, Bee Vang is a little lost on this one.
His performance as Thao was never really convincing. It seemed as if Bee Vang just couldn’t get into the true psyche of his character.
For example, in a scene near the ending, where Walt locks up Thao for his own good, Thao was supposed to be outraged and desperate for Walt to let him out.
While Bee Vang banged on the iron door and screamed at Eastwood, I just couldn’t get a sense of that kind anxiety from Bee Vang’s acting. In fact, it seemed as if a part of Thao was quite happy to remain trapped in Walt’s basement.
The lack of acting chops on Bee Vang’s part is truly a pity as there could have been greater dynamic and depth to the film, given the constant interaction between Thao and Walt. But given that this is Bee Vang’s debut, it is a commendable effort nonetheless.
My only other bone to pick with the film is the lack of explanation on what illness Walt was suffering from (was it terminal? Curable? That would have helped explain Walt’s decision at the end) and the exclusion of scenes that show Walt and Thao in the Gran Torino together (to really help bring in the title of the film).
Perhaps these had been removed from the theatrical release to shorten its runtime (it already clocks in at close to 2 hours), no one knows.
I can only hope for an extended director’s cut in its DVD release to see the film in its true entirety.
A Class Act Overall
For what it’s worth, Gran Torino is certainly an enjoyable movie and perhaps even a tearjerker (yes, it brought me a tear or two at the end).
There is no unnecessary, over-the-top styling to distract you from the plot, which is increasingly hard to find today.
The storytelling and beauty of the plot is allowed to take the driver’s seat (no pun intended) as Eastwood stamps his distinctive directorial style on the film.
Eastwood’s performance, while not flawless, is stellar and clear evidence why he is one of Hollywood’s most respected actors.
While it wasn’t nominated at the Oscars, Gran Torino is no less a must-catch film. Out of a 5-star rating, UrbanWire rates Gran Torino 4 out of 5 stars.
Given that Eastwood is already fast approaching 80, it’s anyone’s guess how many more films will Eastwood star or direct before he joins the likes of Paul Newman as a late Hollywood great that everyone will come to miss.