Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Cinema 2009: The Gran Torino belongs to a grumpy old man

The overexposed look of the 2009 flick "Gran Torino" serves to accentuate the harshness of the down-at-its-heels Detroit neighborhood where Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) seems determined to make his last stand.

Widowed as the film opens, Kowalski's troubled Korean War vet could have provided a layered, age-appropriate role for the iconic Hollywood tough guy, but Eastwood's character here rarely transcends the caricature of a grumpy old man, albeit with the good guy's requisite soft heart and sense of self-sacrifice. Of course, Eastwood's career has been built on melodrama, even if some of his later work arguably owes its critical acclaim to increased forbearance from the actor/director.

In "Gran Torino," Eastwood's character still plays with guns a half century after his service in Korea, including the rifle he used during that United Nations police action. But in his senior moments Kowalski only pulls a make-believe trigger with an empty hand mimicking a gun; except for once, when the old man trips in his garage while confronting a hapless teenaged neighbor who has been put up to stealing the Gran Torino of the film's title as a gang initiation.

That nocturnal confrontation is one of the movie's most compelling scenes. The action is bathed in intermittent light from a wildly swaying overhead lamp that has been bumped accidentally, heightening the tension as we repeatedly are plunged into darkness during crucial action. That piece of expressionistic filmmaking also emphasizes the post-traumatic stress that has been haunting Kowalski since Korea. The Asian countenance of would-be car thief Thao (Bee Vang), born in Michigan of Hmong parents who emigrated from Vietnam, confronts Kowalski in the dark garage like a hallucination of a young North Korean soldier he killed in the war.

The next day Kowalski parks the Gran Torino, which no one ever drives, on the apron of his driveway, defiantly displaying the mint condition muscle car he himself helped build 36 years earlier while working on the assembly line.

When the gang returns to "give Thao a second chance," Clint's character shuffles across his yard with shouldered rifle to get the interlopers off his lawn, and in the process thwarts the gang's kidnapping of Thao.

The calm, methodical plugging of multiple adversaries, who themselves prove unable to return accurate gunfire in the stress of the moment, is an Eastwood trope. In "Gran Torino," it is alluded to by Kowalski repeatedly.

While Thao expiates his attempted theft through manual labor, Kowalski's bottled-up anger visibly rejuvenates the old warrior, for better or for worse. But whereas Dirty Harry could threaten armed robbers in the midst of their crime with "Go ahead, make my day," a civilian, war veteran or not, can't exactly expect a free pass if he blows away some punks wrestling on his lawn. Kowalski and Eastwood both realize this and as the violence escalates, the filmmaker takes the narrative in another direction.

The real tragedy highlighted in "Gran Torino" is the isolation of individuals within society or families, whether caused by bigotry, selfishness, religious tradition, or post-traumatic stress disorder.

"Gran Torino" is fun, has little and big laughs, and plenty of politically incorrect insults and vintage Eastwood dialog. But despite the realistic themes it dances around and the stark economic reality revealed by Tom Stern's cameras, this movie certainly is not meant to be taken seriously, not from the opening scenes of Kowalski growling at all that displeases him to a later scene where the shuffling septuagenarian lays a brutal beating on a fireplug of a gangbanger without recourse to even a single ampule of nitroglycerin.

Final credits roll over Thao cruising along a pastoral stretch of Lake Erie shorefront. That pacific landscape is anathema to everything we have been shown and while it may imply freedom, it falls short here of providing a liberating coda for troubled Thao.

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