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Gran Torino (Review)

Clint Eastwood bids a limp farewell to acting in a laughable film

By Scott Renshaw · January 7th, 2009 · Movies

Clint Eastwood is not a gifted actor. Twenty years ago, that wouldn’t have been a particularly daring critical statement. The odd outlier like Tightrope notwithstanding, he was known primarily as a guy who could squint one-dimensionally while firing a gun or squint one-dimensionally while being punched by an orangutan.

But at some point during his cinematic dotage, we all started cutting Eastwood way too much slack. We confused the absence of out-and-out thespianic suckitude in great movies like In the Line of Fire, Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby for real acting chops. And now, as Eastwood delivers his self-professed farewell performance in Gran Torino, people are lining up to hand him gold statuettes — this despite the fact this might be one of the worst performances ever by a guy who’s turned in a lot of fairly lame ones.

We’re off to a rollicking start from the very first scene, in which Walt Kowalski (Eastwood) attends his wife’s funeral. Walt is a flinty, no-nonsense guy, and we know this because when his granddaughter shows up in church in a midriff-baring blouse and sporting a navel ring he literally growls at her — as in, he squints, curls his lips and goes, “Grrrrrr!” We also know this because Walt’s two grown sons (Brian Haley and Brian Howe) have a convenient conversation in which they explain what a flinty, no-nonsense guy their dad is.

In case there’s any confusion over the matter, Walt also begins spouting racial epithets that haven’t been heard since Archie Bunker was exchanging witticisms with Meathead.

This blue-collar racism — he’s a retired autoworker and Korean War veteran in a Michigan neighborhood that has become pan-racial — becomes a defining quality as Walt begins interacting with his Hmong immigrant neighbors. Sue Lor (Ahney Her) is a sassy teen who gives as good as she gets from Walt. Her younger brother Thao (Bee Vang) is a shy kid getting hassled by their cousin’s Hmong gang. When Thao reluctantly attempts to fulfill an initiation ritual by stealing Walt’s prized 1972 Gran Torino, Walt catches him in the act, nearly killing them both in the process.

You might think this would lead immediately to a call to the police, but you would be mistaken. Instead, it leads ultimately to Thao becoming Walt’s labor-slave, so that Walt can eventually come to respect his work ethic and become a surrogate father-figure to the boy. This places Gran Torino in the time-honored cinematic tradition of relationships between fatherless kids and grouchy old men, in which the mentor imparts valuable life lessons — which might or might not involve the teaching of karate — while also himself learning how to open his heart.

None of which is inherently terrible, despite its predictability. But Gran Torino plants this familiar framework in the center of a truly wretched script. Screenwriter Nick Schenk treats the words “spook,” “zipperhead” and “chink” as though they were a priori hilarious, presuming that we must laugh to prove that we understand what a racist — but lovable! — lout Walt is. He introduces the doomed-character cliché of the bloodstained handkerchief. He panders with plenty of exploitation violence and attempts to turn Walt’s insensitive sons into comic heavies, never once demonstrating enough sympathy to realize that anyone raised by this guy was going to wind up a douchebag. Seeing this script honored with year-end awards has been a mind-boggling experience; if this is what’s held up as a paradigm, no wonder Hollywood screenwriting is such crap.

With such a horrible starting point for the characters, maybe the terrible acting should be more forgivable. Eastwood’s young Asian co-stars almost uniformly sound as though they’re reading off of distant cue cards, apparently incapable of investing the words with human emotion.

It’s impressive that Eastwood’s performance still manages to look so bad when surrounded by so much carnage. He rasps out his exchanges with everyone in a nearly identical tone and never seems particularly convincing either as a real bigot or as a reformed bigot.

Maybe, being an industry veteran and a knowledgeable director, he decided to fall on the grenade that was this script and make himself look even worse than all the rookies around him. That would make him a pretty good guy — but it still wouldn’t make him a good actor. Grade: D

Opens Jan. 9. Check out theaters and show times, see the film's trailer and find nearby bars and restaurants here.



01.14.2009 at 04:15 Reply
Your writing's a bunch of crap! How could somebody with your level of writing talent dare to judge this film?? You're way off--actually, it's a great film. The one thing that was clearly off--and it is b/c they paled so badly in comparison to Clint Eastwood--was the supporting cast's acting. It was pretty weak. Eastwood is simplicity, but his character draws intense attention.


01.15.2009 at 11:42 Reply
I loved the movie and though Eastwood was outstanding. I'm sure the fact that Clint is a Republican keeps him from your good graces. Your review is idiotic. The fact that it will be successful at the box office won't matter to you either because you are smarter and better than everyone else. Good job, hack.


01.20.2009 at 07:48 Reply
I haven't seen the movie but you've got it right 'bout Clint. The man is one-dimensional, plays the same basic character (himself?) in nearly every movie I've seen him in. Wooden, predictable. I was so disappointed when he was chosen as the male lead in the Bridges of Madison County. . . He may have great depth of character but he isn't able to communicate that to us. Rough, tough, squint, squint, gruff he can do. For a spaghetti Western or a Dirty Harry character he's perfect. But this sudden "great actor" talk that so many are suddenly parroting is the stuff the Emperor's Clothes are made of.


01.22.2009 at 05:30
Go see the movie. You will be surprised by the message, it teaches a little about Hmong culture ...but in a way even Deer Hunters from Wisconsin could understand if they are'nt to busy yelling racial slurs and discharging their weapons in the vicinity of others.


01.22.2009 at 05:13 Reply
Wow...you are a LOSER. You missed the point of this film as bad as the redneck geeks who laugh at the racial slurs. Clint nailed this role. He should and will get an Academy Award. What planet are you from? This is one of the most carefully told stories of reality ever. And look at your own Race-ism when it comes to the Englishspoken by the actors. Serious go back to your cubby ..CHUBBY and eat another Twix bar. How do people like you get jobZ? They pay you ??


01.22.2009 at 05:24
Oh by the way...if you have ever worked a blue collar job...dumb ass..you would know that the language was tamed down a bit and yes dumb-ass rednex talk that tough and racial and he never even used the NNNNNN word...dip-stick. CLINT Rules , even at 72...or whatever !!


01.23.2009 at 02:59 Reply
Wow Scott you are taking a beating on these comments but let me ease the pain and take some of the heat off of you. This review is so completely accurate it is like you took over my brain and stole my thoughts. I am nothing short of amazed at all of the love heaped upon this movie as being so ground breaking and amazing. Per usual if you disagree with the status quo then you have somehow missed the mark or are racist yourself because you didn't get all weepy at this lame premise. This film truly felt like an after school special or a student film. The film making and edits were horrible. There were at least three or four different scenes when I saw a boom mic or boom mic shadow. The acting was so incredibly bad that it completely pulled focus from the story. This movie has it's moments but they are so few and far between that it is not worth the price of admission. I like Clint Eastwood and could forgive the one note Dirty Harry character but everything around him is sub par, to include the groveling song he sang at the end. Trust this review as it is completely on point.