Friday, January 16, 2009

Vintage Eastwood in “The Gran Torino”

Vintage Eastwood in “The Gran Torino”

“The Gran Torino” refers to a vintage ’72 car protected by a feeble garage and the gun power of its owner, Korean War vet Walt Kolwalkski, (Clint Eastwood.) Everyone longs for a chance to drive the mint condition Gran Torino, including Walt’s materialistic son and suburban nightmare family, his painfully shy teenage neighbor, and the violent gang of Hmong gangsters, who like Walt, tote guns. Just as everyone in the film yearns to cruise the prized vintage Ford, “Gran Torrino”’s target audience craves vintage Eastwood. Strumming memories of Dirty Harry, Eastwood as Walt delivers countless versions of “Make my day” (now the word “goon” is added) and squints with every bit of the same severity.

Although the dialogue in Nick Schenk’s first screenplay’s frequently proves amateur, the plot itself offers a modern if simplistic view of American society in 2008: Sr. citizen Walt, who embodies the racism of his generation, has outlived his wife and is the only white man left in his deteriorating, now Chinese, neighborhood. At long last Walt confronts his prejudice when he accidentally becomes friends with the Chinese family next door while protecting (by chance) their awkward teenage son (Thao played by Bee Vang) from Hmong gangsters. The choice of the Hmongs as the community in anguish reveals a Hollywood orientalism (the Hmong culture makes for an exotic contrast to Walt’s, and the audience’s, middle-American values.) However, the Hmong decision was primarily practical; the “n” word is still unacceptable, and even at 78, Eastwood can tower over the diminutive Hmongs.

In “Gran Torino” the elderly but fit Eastwood recaptures the allure of his past roles. Though Eastwood was 37 years younger when he developed the iconographic Harry Callahan under Don Siegal, and younger still when he built his tough cowboy appeal (“Rawhide”, “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,”) in “Gran Torino” the cold call to justice is rejuvenated as a crotchety old man. If Eastwood’s lines and performance are predictable, they are doubly comic, for each time nostalgia is retrieved an element of spoof results. (In fact, today the Union Square audience roared at each of Walt’s threats and bigoted insults.)

David Schwartz in his interview complimented Eastwood by saying “Gran Torino” resembled classic Hollywood. Yes, there are many long shots of the neighborhood, the story holds a moral, and the characters (other than Walt) are flat types. However, the film is primarily a vehicle for Eastwood (and his public) to relive his acting-glory days. Eastwood has perfected the delivery and timing of the quiet, vengeful rebel and is further aided by a script tailor-made for him (according to Eastwood, screen-writer Schenk hunted down his agent.) “Gran Torino” does not rival any of Eastwood’s recent directorial gems, (“Million Dollar Baby,” “Mystic River,” “Flags of our Fathers”) but it does make an interesting bookend for Eastwood's silent and angry persona.

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