Spinning his wheels

'Gran Torino' is a star vehicle for Eastwood, but he isn't in the right gear in his roles as actor and director * 1/2 ( 1 1/2 STARS)

January 09, 2009|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,michael.sragow@baltsun.com

Does self-love mean never having to say you're sorry?

Clint Eastwood directed and plays the lead role in Gran Torino, and it's come out as a mash note to the star who, like him or not (and I sometimes do), transformed himself from a TV hunk to the most durable big-screen hard guy of our time. It's engineered, coarsely but shrewdly, to exploit his gnarly side while enabling him to try a little tenderness.

It's a star turn of a particularly obvious kind. (No wonder it's been talked about for Oscars.) Eastwood played an aging man of action more cleverly in In the Line of Fire and more humorously in Space Cowbo ys. But he's never done it with more crowd-pleasing shticks and turnarounds than he does in Gran Torino. To express toughness, he twists his mouth and pulls it down on one side, or growls with a crackle, like Satan crossbred with a bear. But when he settles in for a good session of porch-sitting, with his faithful dog, Daisy, a cooler full of beer at his feet and his emerald '72 Gran Torino staring back at him from his driveway, he looks almost as mellow as he did in the quieter moments of B ronco Billy.

For those who've been yearning to see Dirty Harry clean his hands, or have been waiting for another big action hero to play Messiah ever since Paul Newman stretched his arms out crucifix-style in Cool Hand Luke, this movie delivers the second- and third-hand goods.

"I hadn't planned on doing much more acting, really," Eastwood has said, "but this film had a role that was my age, and that character seemed like it was tailored for me, even though it wasn't." If it wasn't then, it sure is now. Eastwood's character, Walt Kowalski, is a Korean War veteran and retired Ford worker who has never gotten over his wartime traumas or his disdain for the "rice-burners" that ate up the American auto industry. Unfortunately, one of his sons sells Asian cars.

Kowalski starts out like a cross between Archie Bunker and Harry Callahan - with a little bit of Brando's Stanley Kowalski mixed in. He's the strong, silent type - emphasis on type - except when he's spewing racial epithets. Racist and recently widowed (his wife's funeral is the opening scene), alienated from his children and grandchildren, he feels besieged because the Hmong people, an ethnic group with roots in Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and China, moved in and changed the makeup of his Michigan neighborhood.

I'd respect the film more if it were a tale of unlikely allies joining together for their common good without getting all gooey about each other. But Walt shows he has a heart of platinum when he reluctantly befriends the teenage Hmong brother and sister who live next door; he sees that they too are just trying to do their best and resist the efforts of Latino, African-American and Hmong thugs to pull them down to street level. (It's a good thing he appreciates their aspirations: He certainly doesn't try to understand anything about their culture.) In turn, they feel indebted to him for protecting them from Hmong and African-American gangs.

In scenes that would resemble T he Karate Kid if Pat Morita's martial-arts master were a crude bigot, Walt sets the boy Thao (Bee Vang) to work cleaning his prize possession, his 1972 Ford Gran Torino, and patching up the neighborhood. Suddenly, Walt experiences the power of positive feeling and the pleasures of ethnic diversity. For example, Thao's sister Sue (Ahney Her) sees straight through to his core unhappiness the way his own kids never did, and brings him a healthier diet than his usual menu of beef jerky and Pabst Blue Ribbon. To rescue them from the gangs' unrelenting violence and intimidation, Walt pulls off the most shameless piece of heart-tugging since Sidney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities took a friend's place during the Reign of Terror.

It's no compliment to say a movie is "all of a piece" if the piece is all worn out. For all its surface harshness, this movie is a star vehicle at once rickety and cozy. Walt's own brood of spiritless, materialistic yuppies and selfish, smart-alecky grandkids don't change for the better. Walt does, when Sue and Thao take their place. Are we supposed to think that only Asian kids could pierce through the scar tissue Walt developed in Korea, killing what he calls "gooks"? What did his wife, the proverbial best-thing-that-ever-happened-to-him, do to promote healing in half a century of marriage?

To fill the gaps, Eastwood relies on an audience's attachment to him as an icon - and an audience's fascination in seeing his character turn from aggressive violence to self-sacrifice. A mixture of carefully applied grit and cockle-warming gusto: Nick Schenck's script supplies the recipe and Eastwood adds extra dollops as a director and a star, especially in the excruciating scenes between him and the boyish priest (Christopher Carley) who comes to respect him.

As a filmmaker, Eastwood has always been far more miss than hit, but when he's had a good script, like Unforgiven, he's known how to put it over. (U nforgiven also contained his most authentic, powerful acting.) Gran Torino is more like a bunch of specialty acts, slung together to elicit maximum applause. Carrying his tired hide to one last confrontation, Walt could be Carton on the guillotine, thinking, "It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known."

Gran Torino is far, far from Eastwood's best. But he gets to leave his die-hard fans clapping and crying. For the rest of us, it's so thoroughly mediocre it operates like a potent soporific.

Gran Torino

(Warner Bros.) Starring Clint Eastwood, Bee Vang, Ahney Her. Directed by Eastwood. Rated R for language and some violence. Time 116 minutes.

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