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Mon January 19, 2009
Neighborhood war is hell.
By John DeSando, WCBE's "It's Movie Time"
Thug: "What you lookin' at old man?"
Walt Kowalski: "Ever notice how you come across somebody once in a while you shouldn't have messed with? That's me."
Gran Torino is a grand, enjoyable mess as it veers through racism and revenge with a subtext of satire to confuse the best critic. Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) is a bigoted, Archie Bunker-like Korean War vet and ex-auto worker in Michigan with so much hatred for Asians and in particular the Hmong family next door that he can't talk to them without spewing invective-laden epithets to their faces such as "gooks" and "slopes."
He loves his dog and his vintage 1972 Ford Gran Torino, a symbol of his own durable but anachronistic character.
When you mix those slurs with Eastwood's Dirty-Harry persona, you can't help but smile at the macho-heavy lines such as at the beginning of this review. And most other Walt lines as well as his growl at anything different, an exaggeration of Eastwood's patented groan attending a swift measure of justice.
Given the seriousness of the subject--America adjusting to the shift in its population to Asian, Indian, and Latino, among others--it is challenging that many of Walt's prejudicial lines could be meant as satire with their coded meanings about immigrants' assimilation into a society that still has reservations.
Because of the baggage Eastwood brings from manly characters in Dirty Harry to Million Dollar Baby, it is a difficult not to enjoy the nostalgia of his dialogue here, if not laugh out loud in amusement.
While Eastwood may get a nod for an Oscar (He won't beat Sean Penn, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, or Frank Langella), many of the other actors are too amateurish not to distract from the weight of an otherwise good film.
The cross-generational, cross-cultural relationship between Walt and two of his neighbors, Thao (Bee Vang) and Susan (Ahney Her), relies on the slow change in his prejudices, but such subtlety requires more acting experience than these two neophytes have. And those ethnic thugs: Their wooden bravado is a distraction.
But then I thought Christopher Carley as the parish priest, Father Janovich, was also an amateur, and he already has a filmography worthy of a 30 year old actor. So what do I know anyway? Eastwood directed them; he must take the credit.
John DeSando teaches film at Franklin University and co-hosts WCBE 90.5's It's Movie Time and Cinema Classics shows, which can be heard streaming at http://publicbroadcasting.net/wcbe/ppr/index.shtml and on demand anytime at http://www.publicbroadcasting.net/wcbe/arts.artsmain Contact him at JDeSando@Columbus.RR.com