Movie News & Reviews

Eastwood beats up bigotry in 'Gran Torino'

You know the absolute best part about being young?

No, even better than underage drinking. Cooler yet than possessing thestill-intact delusion you can grow up to be anything you want to be.More fun -- hard as it may sound to believe -- than driving poorly andtexting your friends during movies. No, the absolute best part aboutbeing young is the knowledge that, whatever crazy social beliefsadults hold right now, they'll turn out to be wrong.

It happened with slavery, and then a few years later (OK, like a100) it happened with segregation. It's happening now with gayrights. Once the world moves on far enough, bigotry that was oncecommon, such as the kind held by Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino, ismore baffling than offensive. And so what if the radical, progressivebeliefs you held when you were young end up looking ridiculous andbackwards when you're old? Get old enough and you possess the mostdevastating anti-youth weapon of them all: the ability to subjecteveryone in hearing range to ceaseless stories drawn from a lifetimeof experience.

After the death of his wife, scowling, blunt-tongued Korean War vetEastwood is hardly alone: his son is after him to think about movingout of the ghetto, and the local priest keeps dogging him to come toconfession.

Eastwood would sooner punch them both out than do what they want. He'sthe kind of man who would save introverted neighbor kid Bee Vang froma gang brawl, then yell at Vang to get off his lawn.

But to the neighbors, he's a hero. And though Vang earlier tried tosteal Eastwood's car -- not to mention committing the even moreunforgivable crime of being Asian -- Eastwood starts to warm to him.Problem is, that gang's still out there, and they're not about toforget the way they've been humiliated.

Gran Torino is going to get a lot of credit for being bracinglyrough and un-PC. No doubts there: it's got more ethnic slurs than wereused in the whole of World Wars I, II, and IX. Eastwood (who alsodirected) plays a House-like character who's as fascinating ashe is repulsive. The secret, of course, is it just takes a while toget to know him -- but once you have, it's worth all the effort.

The other secret is he's crazy hilarious. There are rules aboutgetting away with offensive material, and the rule is that if it'sfunny, there are no rules. Writer Nick Schenk's offhandedly crueldialogue is a constant surprise, and though Eastwood's scowling andgrowling could easily veer into cartoonish, geriatric Dirty Harryterritory, he's a good enough actor that it rarely turns that way.

The dramatic side walks a similar line. Crusty old dudes having theirhard hearts cracked by good-natured kids is older than God's dad andcheesier than a walking cheesemonster. (They're more common than you'dthink.) Eastwood's unrepentant bigotry gives the movie the chance toevade the sap; a gimmick-free, naturalistic friend- and mentorshipbetween him and Vang gives it some real depth.

Their relationship unfolds so well that it's a while before I realizednothing else was going on. The gang had disappeared, and with it halfthe reason their story was being told. On a scene-by-scene basis, it'sfine. As a whole, it could have used a couple cuts.

As for the uneven performances of its younger cast, is that becausethey still have a few things to learn about acting, or were they justdoing a dead-on job as awkward teenagers? Beats the hell out of me; asa man of impeccable social skills and +18 charisma, I have no insightinto what it's like to ever be less than Hollywood perfect. Let's justsay it was a minor distraction.

That's a small complaint in the face of all that salty dialogue, theunconventional takes on conventional characters, and the gruff butearned emotion. After a long stretch of unexceptional movies, GranTorino is a good start to the year.

Grade: B+

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