Well-crafted and enjoyable casually racist drama.
Gran Torino, assuming that this does turn out to be his final film in front of the camera at least, is perhaps a return to the roles that made him so iconic in the first place. It's not to hard to imagine that rather than the retired, just widowed Korean War veteran Walt Kowalski, he's playing a recently retired Dirty Harry Callahan, as it's a similarly uncompromising character. Living in a less-than salubrious neighbourhood where an influx of Korean residents have left him in a local white minority, he seems to live his life with a permanent scowl and never-ending racial epithets pouring from his lips.
All of which makes it surprising that this grumpiest of grumpy old men cuts such a sympathetic character. Emotionally distant from his family, he seems only to have friends in his dog, the only character in the film to escape racial slurs, and his barber, who is insulted just as badly as everyone else. Except he fights back. Largely dismissive of the attempts by young local cleric Father Janovich (Christopher Carley) to reach out to him, there's perhaps a question of where all this is going to wind up, at least until his neighbour's young son Thao (Bee Vang) attempts to steal his classic Gran Torino.
In what's planned as a rather forced initiation into a local gang fronted by his cousin, Thao agrees grudgingly to this grand theft auto after the Koreans save him from a hassling by the local rival gang. This scheme rather falls apart after being rumbled in the attempt by Walt and his shotgun, and so does Thao's entry to the gang. This doesn't seem to bother him, at least until his mother forces him to work for Walt to repay the families debt of honour.
Meanwhile Thao's elder sister Sue (Ahney Her) is having her own problems with the assorted scum and villainy that litter the area, with Walt helping out on one occasion as he finds himself increasingly drawn into and warming to his neighbours and their family lives, especially with his stands against the gangs giving him something of a local hero status. Acting as a role model, of all things, to Thao, he helps him gain employment and 'learn to speak like a man', which, again, largely seems to revolve around picking the appropriate racial slurs at the appropriate time.
Still, the gangs aren't keen on loosing their grip on the neighbourhood and suffering slights at the hands of the gun-wielding coffin dodger, and thing soon start to take dramatic and shocking dives into a very dark place indeed.
I have no earthly idea how Clint makes Walt into such a likeable character, especially in the opening third where almost everything that stumbles from his mouth is, on the face of it, grossly offensive. Whether he really means what he say is another thing, I suppose, and I'm not altogether sure it counts as racism if you simply hate everybody. And everything. Although this seems to be more of a front that Walt throws up to the world rather that a real reflection of what he believes.
It's a hell of a character, to be sure, his status as a veteran allowing for just the right amount of pathos and drama while helping his new Korean friends, and his journey proves to be a compelling one. Often funny, often touching and occasionally powerful, while Gran Torino might not represent any cinema-redefining brilliance it's an incredibly well-crafted and enjoyable drama that proves, not that it's been in any doubt of late, that the man still seems to have his best years ahead of him.
Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 4/5 TippyMarks.
Christopher Carley (Father Janovich)
Bee Vang (Thao Vang Lor)
Ahney Her (Sue Lor)