“Gran Torino” feels simple. Its characters speak matter-of-factly and don’t have any extended backstories or wildly diverse personalities. Their motives and desires are determined not by detailed characteristics but plain family relations. When these interpersonal motives clash, they create few but powerful ripples in the crumbling, gang-ridden urban pond known as Detroit.
Clint Eastwood, who also directed the film, plays Walt Kowalski, a Korean war veteran and recent widower who has a grudge against anyone whose skin isn’t as pasty white as his own. He’s a brow-beaten curmudgeon, close to what older versions of Dirty Harry or The Man With No Name would like if they were living in Bush-era Michigan. Next door to Walt is a Hmong family, a group of individuals of Asian descent who have a strong population in the neighborhood. Walt catches Thao (played by Bee Vang), a shy, shoulder-slumped teen trying to steal his Gran Torino to appease his gangster cousins. This attempted theft puts Thao in Walt’s debt, causing a friendship to bloom, and for Walt to change his perspective in the face of danger.
It’s a social experiment of a film, a testament to the strength of role models and the dangers of racism, isolationism and needless violence. The interesting thing about the gang culture in the film’s section of Detroit is that it seems like its not even needed, but more just something that young individuals do because they are so bored. It’s a powerful story, but really only survives because of Eastwood’s performance. He does nothing more than his snarling, sassy Clint Eastwood thing, with his “Gran Torino” character being nearly interchangeable for his brash but brilliant boxing trainer in “Million Dollar Baby.” Still, there’s a reason why these common Clint performances are so beloved: He knows how to inject the old man thing with life every time.
Back when it was first released in 2008, “Gran Torino” was supposed to be Eastwood’s last acting project, where he would only focus on directing from then on. That changed in 2012 when Eastwood starred alongside Amy Adams in “Trouble With The Curve,” a hit-or-miss baseball drama. But watching this film with the intent that it was going to be Eastwood’s last, it makes a lot of sense. It’s quintessential Eastwood doing a completely new Eastwood, his trademark cantankerous, cannon-holding loner but in a new type of movie with an entirely different type of actors. Just like how Walt has ultimate control of his destiny in the final act, so does Eastwood just by acting in this movie. He’s making a statement, not asking us to remember him as this, but telling us this is how he will be remembered: A familiar, silent hero in a vocal, original film.