Story last updated at 1/21/2009 - 11:45 am
Walt Kowalski growls. And I mean, growls. Like a dog. Lips pulled back. Teeth bared. Eyes slitted. A growl that comes from deep inside his chest.
A lot of things make him growl.
His yuppie son, who sells Japanese cars. His granddaughter, who sports a bare midriff - at a funeral. The young Roman Catholic priest, who's so annoyingly patient as he tries to reach out to the bitter old man.
But what really makes him growl are the changes in his working-class Detroit neighborhood, where immigrants and gangs are moving in. He's got plenty of nasty names for the newcomers, and he'll use them, to their faces.
In "Gran Torino", that's Clint Eastwood doing the growling, and the first couple times he does it, you laugh - perhaps not for the right reasons. It's so over-the-top, so silly, after all.
But darned if old Clint - who directed and co-wrote as well - doesn't start to pull it off. His Walt Kowalski begins to comes to life: part get-off-my-lawn bigoted grouch, part tough-guy icon, long ago put out to pasture.
Walt has plenty of firepower when he faces off against surly gangsters one-fourth his age, but he's at his best when he just points his fingers like a gun and pulls an imaginary trigger: Pow.
They get the message.
"Gran Torino" has many faults, which will become all too evident when you watch it. It's melodramatic and contrived, and some people just won't be able to get past that. But it's the kind of movie that's easy to embrace, for all its faults; it's as if Eastwood, at 78, doesn't really care if his picture is kind of corny. He's not making it for hipsters or studio heads or the great mobs of megaplexes.
Take it for what it is: An old guy who gives himself one last juicy role as the flawed, haunted anti-hero, an old guy who's done this so often that he isn't above making himself look silly as well as heroic (he even croons the title song over the ending credits).
Eastwood's Kowalksi is a Korean War vet and a white holdout in his working-class Detroit neighborhood, where he flies the flag every day and drinks Pabst Blue Ribbon - unironically - from a cooler on his front porch. That's the best place to see the shiny 1972 Gran Torino in his driveway, Detroit muscle from the days when guys like Walt Kowalski made Fords; they didn't need no stinkin' buyouts.
And the porch is the best place to see neighborhood going, in his frequently voiced opinion, downhill, filling up with Hmong immigrants whom he labels with several nasty ethnic slurs from his days in Korea.
The story follows the gradual transformation of the ornery old coot by his new-next-door neighbors: Thao (Bee Vang), the shy, nerdy boy next door, and his sister Sue (Ahney Her), who's smart and sensible.
Under their influence, Walt gradually softens, though it's touch-and- go for a while.
For example, invited to a barbecue, he accepts, but tells his Hmong hosts: "Just keep your hands off my dog." He's joking, we think.
"Gran Torino" turns out to be surprisingly funny, kind of sweet and consistently entertaining, moving at a relaxed but steady pace toward an ending that, in retrospect, seems pre-ordained. It's a myth-making act, that ending, and isn't that what classic movies are all about?
3 out of 4 stars. 1 hour, 56 minutes. Rated R for much profanity, ethnic slurs and some violence.