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Gran Torino

dir: Clint Eastwood
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What a sweet, crusty, curmudgeonly old man Clint is. And boy, is he old. He has officially reached Methuselah age, but it’s not slowing him down, not a bit. Gran Torino was one of two films Clint put out in 2008, following closely on the heels of his other massive two-film endeavour, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima. So age has clearly not wearied him. He’s making more films than ever, and his films are more loved than ever. The man’s certainly not in decline.

All the same, as a director Clint happily works far harder than as an actor, since he’s earned the right to just coast along by now. And coast he does, playing the same Clint he’s been playing for forty years, just older and crustier.

And we love him for it, and are more than happy to let it slide. Even when the melodrama is as cheesy as it is here, even when the acting (admittedly by non-professional actors) is atrocious, and when the script is so appalling. We don’t care because it’s Clint.

Here Clint plays Walt Kowalski, a grizzled, Korean War vet who’s recently lost his wife and basically hates everything and everyone around him. Or, we’re supposed to believe, he only gives the appearance thereof. He is continuously, aggressively abusive and racist to all and sundry, with especial grunting slurs being aimed at his neighbours, none of whom are white enough for Walt’s liking. Everything that mattered to him is tattered or gone, or was never there in the first place. He can’t stand his sons or his grandkids, but you can’t blame him, because they are represented as being loathsome, mercenary people with not a single likable trait.

Not like our charming protagonist. Despite his obvious character deficiencies, we know full well that he’s okay because he’s a Real Man. A Real American. And his job is not to change to accommodate a changing world; his job is to change the world back around him to accommodate him.

The Asian neighbours who he seems to despise happen to be of the Hmong variety, being an ethnicity originating from areas of Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand, and now infesting Walt’s beloved Michigan. Worst of all, some of these Hmong are nasty Americanised gangbanger thugs, and they have designs upon his 1972 Gran Torino Sport, a car Walt helped build at the Ford plant where he worked all his life.

The gang morons compel a timid, uncertain boy who happens to be Walt’s neighbour to try to steal the car, which unleashes Walt’s fury, setting the groundwork for a bloody confrontation, but also the framework for Walt’s and his neighbours engagement with each other. Walt’s boy neighbour Thao (Bee Vang), and his far more intelligent sister Sue (Ahney Her), go some way towards getting Walt to reconnect with his neighbourhood, but he also compels those kids and, in fact, the whole neighbourhood to act and be more to his liking. So Thao gets to learn how to be not just a Real Man, but an American Real man, and Walt gets to develop some respect for a culture he keeps dismissing as constituting the same kinds of “gooks” and “zipperheads” he killed and stacked like sandbags in Korea.

There is a real disparity here, which not a lot of people I’ve spoken to or whose comments I’ve read about the film seem to point to: it’s actually pretty uncomfortable to watch Clint in much of this film. The argument is that of course we live in a politically correct age where we’ve lost the opportunity to really speak openly and truthfully to each other, forcing issues of race and identity to be submerged, breeding hatreds of other less obvious but no less virulent varieties.

That all may be well and good, but I fail to say how Clint is breaking down those politically correct ethnic barriers or holding up a mirror to multicultural society. The fact is, it’s pretty fucking annoying having a guy call you a gook or a whatever to your face in every single fucking sentence he speaks to you. When every conversation has to have that form of punctuation, it seems less like an attack on political correctness, and more a form of Tourette’s or mental illness.

Sample conversation: You invite the protagonist of this film into your house during a party, and you want to extend your hospitality to him by offering him some of the abundant food you’ve prepared.

“Hi, would you like to try some of this dish?”
“What, you slanty-eyed gook? You trying to poison me with this goddamn dog meat, you zipperhead slope?”
“No, just try some of the chicken.”
“Chicken, you VC hag? That ain’t chicken, and I’ll call you and your whole stinking race a bunch of filthy dog eating liars, you ching chong chink bitch!”
“Just try it, okay?”
“Eh, all right” – tries chicken – “that’s pretty good, you fucking Me Luv You Long Time whore.”

And on and on it goes. But Sue and Thao, who cop most of this shit, endure it with saintlike forbearance, perhaps because they pity aged Walt, perhaps because they lack a strong paternal figure in their lives, perhaps because they can see past Walt’s racist bullshit and see that there’s no real invective behind his comments and that he’s actually a decent person. Despite Walt’s tirades and deadly serious death threats towards them (there is never a gun more than arms’ reach away from Walt at any given moment), Walt does seem to care about Sue and Thao at least, and is downright protective of them.

After Thao’s failed attempt to be cool in the eyes of retarded petty crims with Uzis, his family insist that he pay off a debt of honour to Walt for his crime. Walt happily uses Thao to do all sorts unpaid maintenance work in order to return his street to the meticulously maintained state that he remembers from the 50s. In the process we are meant to assume that Walt also starts to see qualities previously hidden from him in Thao, to indicate that he is worthy of Walt’s guidance. What those qualities might be apart from the ability to endure constant racial insults is a complete mystery to me, because the actor playing Thao is such an awkward boy. I’m sure it’s appropriate for the part, but damn is he ordinary.

His sister Sue, who is a bit smarter and more ‘integrated’, whatever that means in contemporary America, seems to be trapped in several episodes of Degrassi High, because she is perpetually in afterschool special mode, explaining Hmong culture to Walt in between his insults, and rolling her eyes and being a poster child for multiculturalism. Of course, she is put in the unenviable position of ‘paying’ for multiculturalism’s crimes, once in an awkward scene where her try-hard wigger boyfriend (played by one of Clint’s own sons) is confronted by the real deal, and later on spurring the film’s conclusion, suffering the ultimate indignity at the hands of her own Hmong people.

The scene on the street corner, with the three African-Americans is especially telling in that the flick’s vaunted political incorrectness is shown up for the crap that it is. They ridicule and humiliate her friend for his lame attempts at both speaking ebonics and at camaraderie, and then alternate promising her all sorts of sexual delights in between threatening her with rape. When Walt happens to be rolling by, and saves Sue by dint of having a gun, he uses all sorts of racially based insults towards them, calling them spades and spooks, but he never calls them what Americans so awkwardly and artlessly refer to as the “n-word”. He mutters about dagos, spicks and kikes with the best of them, but quails before the possibility of angering the NAACP.

Yes, even super-patriot enemy of timid political correctness Killer Kowalski doesn’t have the balls to use the word “nigger.” It’s a strange bridge-too-far moment, considering they exhaust pretty much every single contemporary ethnic slur that Americans use over the course of the film. Much to my delight / chagrin.

At first Walt’s progressively more violent actions seem to be in defence of the American Way of life, and then in defence of the garden gnomes on his lawn, and then it becomes about defending Thao and Sue from the rougher elements within their own community. It seems to be escalating in a way familiar to the more vigilante-happy movies that Clint is famous for, and it may seem to be a bit of a stretch to accept that 78-year-old Walt can effectively beat up a thug 60 years his junior, which he does. Most of that really comes down to whether you buy Clint as this character or not. I have a hard time believing anyone who’s ever been a fan of Clint not believing this character. Even as I found the verbal tics to be distracting, even to be fucking distracting, as Christian Bale might scream at one of the production staff on one of his movies, I still liked him, a lot I guess.

But, see, the thing is, though I accept the character, and I accept Clint as the character, I don’t really buy what the film is saying. Someone who day in and day out trades in cursing and contempt for people based on whatever ethnicity they might have doesn’t magically start seeing them as people and humans at 78 just because he develops some kind of attachment to his neighbours. In a bar scene, where Walt is hanging out with Korean War vets and trading racist jokes and tirades, you get the feeling these shmucks have been doing this ever since shipping back Stateside in 1953-54. That’s a lot of time to have been trading in unveiled contempt for the rest of humanity that doesn’t look like you. Upon reaching 78, you’d barely see these people as anything more than talking animals, if that. So this late-life conversion stuff is unlikely, especially for a man who can’t go a sentence without vilifying someone.

Life doesn’t work like that. Thankfully, art does.

The film seems to be venturing towards one conclusion, and ends up going in a direction that makes a bit more sense on its surface (since the actual plan is lunacy when you think about it later on), that makes a lot of sense dramatically. It’s very satisfying. Very, very satisfying, and it caps off an earned ending that I didn’t see coming. Even Clint’s singing over the end credits about the Gran Torino, in a voice that would scare Tom Waits, couldn’t detract from that ending.

That’s the strange thing about the flick. It’s awkward in parts, thematically murky, morally questionable, structurally all over the place, the acting is spotty at best, and the story is conventionally melodramatic from go to whoa. But good goddamn if it isn’t one of the flicks I’ve enjoyed the most in the last year or so. The vast majority of this can be put down to Clint’s charisma even as a doddery old man, but he is, as a director and a creative force, still at the peak of his powers, as his last five films have shown. Gran Torino might not have the historical or thematic ambitions of his Iwo Jima flicks, or the specificity of detail or true crime aspirations of Changeling, or the moral ambiguity of something like Unforgiven, but it’s certainly one of the most enjoyable flicks in his long and varied career, perhaps because of its relative simplicity.

Alls I knows is, I enjoyed it a lot against my better judgement, and so should you, you hick bastards.

7 times Get Off My Lawn never sounded so scary out of 10

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“Oh, I've got one. A Mexican, a Jew, and a coloured guy go into a bar. The bartender looks up and says, "Get the fuck out of here.”” – nothing’s funnier than racism, Gran Torino.

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