Clint Eastwood’s second film of the year is definitely the lesser of the two, but Eastwood gives a fine performance that makes the film more than worth visiting.
Walt’s (Clint Eastwood) wife has just died and he is left to live out his elderly days in a rundown Detroit neighborhood that has been essentially been taken over by the local Asian community. Walt is stubborn, grouchy, borderline racist, and very politically incorrect. He is a product of his time and being a veteran of the Korean War, his thoughts and words towards their race are rarely the nicest to fall on ones ears. His neighboring house is full of three generations of a Hmong family, who are full of pride and tradition as they were driven out of their native home after the Vietnam War, including two younger kids who tend to get mixed up in a bit of trouble with the local Hmong gang. Walt could careless about these kids, Thao and Sue, until their issues spill over onto Walt’s lawn too which he confronts with his rifle. After a bit of hesitance, Walt begins to form a bond, or as close to as a bond as he can muster, with the kids and family and slowly develops into a protector of sorts over them and even a mentor of sorts for Thao.
I will delve no more into the story, but heed this; it is not the movie the commercials are selling. This film is about growing up, both as a teen and as an old man, and is not the revenge film thriller the film is selling it as. Those elements bookend a bonding and connection of cultures, ages, and lives between Walt and his Hmong neighbors and the end result is a bit of a mixed bag. Now, there are some fantastic scenes in the film, including some great bits of humor along the way, but there are also too many overly long and dragging scenes through out that aren’t very necessary nor very interesting. The film moves along as awkwardly as the bond between families’ forms in the film, while also trying to blend in redemption of past plot between Walt and the local priest. Though in the end, the film builds a bond you believe in, you just wish it took a bit better path to get us there. What made this film a struggle to work through was the humongous hurdle of overcoming some horrendous acting in the film.
Outside Eastwood, John Carroll Lynch as a barber, and the main black kid who was harassing the Sue character, everyone else in this film is borderline bad to just plain awful. Bee Vang as Thao appears to be struggling to just get through every scene and I could barely believe anything he says or does; and these are his good scenes. When he is at his worst, i.e. behind the metal door, you’ll know, he is almost laughably awful, and I don’t want to rip on an amateur untrained first time actor, but his acting was a distraction at times and took you out of the picture. Not doing much better is Christopher Carley as the priest trying to get a confession out of Walt. So incredibly wooden and unbelievable, I couldn’t buy any emotion he throws at me. In the hands of a better actor this character could have been hilarious, and had a couple of kick ass moments in the film, but instead I end up laboring through all of his scenes as he tries make his way through his scenes. Ahney Her as Sue is a weak link as well, though she looks like a god compared to these two, and to be fair, she has a couple of decent moments along the way where she does a fine job, particularly when one on one with Eastwood. Eastwood on the other hand knocks it out of the park and throws everyone on his back to help us get through the picture. He is pitch-perfect as the grizzled, racist, aging veteran who does need anyone to look out for him. He is also hilarious when he starts throwing out all of the racist slang and intimidating would be tough guys. It was a nice surprise to find that the story was deeper then just a tale of vengeance, but when all those scenes of Eastwood being a bad ass are as good as they are, you can’t help but want more. Eastwood is just great, and if this is his farewell to acting, it’s a great turn to go out on.
In the end, Gran Torino is solid picture, with a nice premise; the execution is just a bit off. Not helping the picture is the unfortunate use of some awful actors to play two of the four main characters, and while I get Eastwood’s direction to go simple and cheap, this film could have been so much more with some actual talent and a bit more time in the editing bay. Regardless, the film is worth seeing for Eastwood alone, and if you go in to the film knowing what it really is, and not how it is advertised, I think that will help with your enjoyment as well. It’s just sad that this movie could have easily been taken to another level or two if it had simply made a few adjustments.