If there were an Academy Award for Best Growling in a Motion Picture (and there should be), Clint Eastwood would be the prohibitive favorite every time out. Sure, the bravado and the mean, chiseled face are the hallmarks of Clint the actor, but the squinty-eyed snarl is his signature, and he delivers it here with a gritty, spittle-flecked flourish.
Whatever else Gran Torino is or isn't, it's at least a master class in the irascibility that Eastwood has perfected over his 50-plus years in showbiz.
The grumbler this time is Walt Kowalski, the latest incarnation in a long line of tough-guy cinematic curmudgeons. Walt is an implacable Korean War veteran and retired autoworker mourning the recent death of his wife. He doesn't really understand the modern American society that has, it seems, suddenly sprung up around his neighborhood in the guise of the Hmong families who represent the new face of his block.
Walt's heyday, much like Eastwood's, was that of the strong, silent type, but that knuckle-down and by-the-bootstraps attitude has ceased to be a common trait, especially in his two absentee sons. And boy, does that piss him off.
When a strait-laced Hmong boy from next door, Thao (Bee Vang), is bullied by his gangbanger cousin into stealing Walt's pristine '72 Ford Gran Torino, it sets off a chain of events that leads Walt and Thao's family into the arena of uneasy friendship. Walt discovers, much to his surprise, that once he gets past the weird names and odd customs, he actually likes them.
Gangbangers, unfortunately, don't just shoo away nicely.
Newcomer Vang is serviceable as Thao, and Ahney Her is charming as Sue, Thao's sister, who initiates the bond between Thao and Walt, but this ride is all about Clint being Clint. Torino is possibly his last real go at the Little Golden Man (for Best Actor, at least, which he's never won), and he won't let us forget that, even squeezing in a wistful little piano ballad to round out his filmic omnipresence.
It is tempting to ascribe the film the power to address societal problems, but it doesn't possess it. To say it's a microcosm of intercultural relations strays too far from the point. It's about one old man and one troubled kid. Culture and race are themes, but it's no more a cultural essay than, say, The Karate Kid.
What these characters share is an ability to fill the voids left by absent ' emotionally or physically ' sons and fathers. Where Gran Torino fails at social criticism, it succeeds at capturing an engrossing snapshot of the human saga.
If it's Clint's last film, it's a perfect ending.