Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino, an unassuming picture shot during a post-production lull on his elaborate period piece Changeling, was quietly rolled out at Christmastime 2008, whereupon it proceeded to blow away all the Oscar-bait behemoths at the box office and win its 78-year-old star the best reviews of his acting career. Both film and performance are consummately sly--coming on with deceptive simplicity, only to evolve into something complex, powerful, and surprisingly tender. Just as Unforgiven was a tragic reflection on Eastwood's legacy in the Western genre, Gran Torino caps and eloquently critiques the urban heritage of Dirty Harry and his violent brethren. And on top of that, the movie becomes a savvy meditation on America in a particular historical moment, racially, economically, spiritually. Call it a "state of the union" message. But call it that with a wry grin.
The latest Dirty Harry is actually a grumpy Walt: Walt Kowalski (Eastwood playing his own age), widower, Korean War veteran, retired auto worker, and the last white resident of his Detroit side street. It's hard to say who irks him more--his blood kin (a pretty lame bunch) or the Hmong families who are his new neighbors. Kowalski's a racist, because it has never occurred to him he shouldn't be. Besides, that's the flipside of the mutual ethnic baiting that serves as coin of affection for him and his working-class buddies. Circumstances--and two young people next door, the feisty Sue (Ahney Her) and her conflicted brother Thao (Bee Vang)--contrive to involve Walt with a new community, and anoint him as its hero after he turns his big guns on some ruffians. The trajectory of this may surprise you--several times over. Eastwood opted to film in economically blighted Detroit--a shrewd decision, but it's his mapping of Walt's world in that classical style of his that really counts. Every incidental corner of lawn, porch, and basement comes to matter--and by all means the workshop/garage that houses the mint-condition Gran Torino which Walt helped build in a more prosperous era. This is a remarkable movie.