2008 proved to be another busy year for critically acclaimed writer, director, actor, and producer Clint Eastwood. Earlier in 2008, Clint directed the gripping drama “Changeling” starring Angelina Jolie (“Wanted”); yet it was the second film Clint was involved with that year that garnered most of my attention. This film is none other than the recently released “Gran Torino”, which Clint directed and also starred in, possibly in his final onscreen performance. Just like so many of his other films, “Gran Torino” is yet another instant classic from Clint Eastwood, a man of so many talents and a true living legend among Hollywood.
“Gran Torino” is the story of a Korean War veteran named Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood), who despite his intense prejudices remains in the house he shared for so many years with his wife, even though the neighborhood has seen a vast influx of Asian-American homeowners. In spite of his disdain for his neighbors, Walt soon finds himself inadvertently saving the life of one of the local teenagers who is being threatened by an Asian gang after he failed to steal Walt’s beloved Gran Torino. As hard as he tries to fight it, Walt begins to realize that perhaps he may have more in common with his Asian neighbors, despite their vast cultural differences and his pervasive bigotry, than he would ever care to admit.
As one of the most accomplished and iconic actors and/or filmmakers working in Hollywood, with numerous films to his credit, it’s a wonder that Clint can still manage to make a film in which he actually may top himself. Yet, with his terrific performance in this film, I believe Clint has given us one of the best performances of his extremely successful career, if not the best. He imbues his character with such subtle nuances, and an irresistible grandfather-like quality despite his abrasive disposition that you can’t help but like the guy; while at the same time, his mere presence on screen demands our attention and respect. I never believed any actor could make this kind of character so entertaining and likeable, but Clint figured out how to do it, and has succeeded brilliantly.
Speaking of performances, the supporting cast for “Gran Torino” was comprised of mostly newcomers to film. I’m referring to the actors chosen to portray the various Hmong characters that live in the neighborhood that Walt resides in. Leading these cast members are two fairly talented young actors Bee Vang (as Thao) and Ahney Her (as Sue), both of their characters’ interactions with Walt serve as the primary crux on which the majority of the story rests. Surprisingly, Bee and Ahney do very well with their roles providing an authenticity to their struggle for acceptance in a culture that they don’t fully understand and vice versa, while at the same time attempting to reach out to a man who has spent the majority of his life despising those who are different. The remainder of the supporting cast was not focused upon in the film nearly as much as the previous two, yet it would be a disservice to them to not mention that they all delivered very solid, and seemingly genuine performances to further enhance the richness of the overall film.
However, if I had to complain about anything in this movie, there is one performance that is weaker than the others. The one in question would be actor Bee Vang, who seemed a bit unsure of himself in places, and at times he would clearly over-emphasize a line reading, causing his character’s dialogue to sound out of place with the other actor(s) in the scene. Although when all is said and done, if Clint Eastwood didn’t have a problem with Bee’s performance in order to make him change it, then who am I to judge.
A few moments back I mentioned that Clint Eastwood was one of the most accomplished actors and filmmakers in Hollywood, and that perhaps he has actually bested himself with his performance here in “Gran Torino”; yet, I never mentioned whether I thought his directing accomplished the same achievement. As refined as Clint’s directing has become over the many years since 1971, when he first decided to step behind the camera, I don’t know if I can say that “Gran Torino” is any better than his previous efforts from that perspective.
One thing that is for certain about Clint’s directing, it’s that he never shies away from hitting the audience hard with an emotional, visceral, or visual impact, and “Gran Torino” is no exception. In this respect he is uncompromising, which is undoubtedly one of the many attributes that has made him such a powerful directing force to be reckoned with over the last few decades. Even though he has the courage to go for the audience’s gut, when lesser men would pull back out of fear that the audience may be turned off, Clint has come to the understanding that you don’t always have to show everything for the full power of the moment to be felt in a scene; which is something that so many other directors would do well to take a lesson in from this living legend.
It’s been rumored that “Gran Torino” marks Clint’s final onscreen appearance, and that the remainder of his career will be served behind the camera. If that is true, then this is definitely a powerful curtain call from the actor, and one he should definitely be proud of.
“Gran Torino” is rated R for violence and language.