January 8, 2009

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Gran Torino (R)
Clint Eastwood dusts off his Dirty Harry snarl to growl and cuss and terrify his way through Gran Torino, a gleaming B-movie diamond.

Can you call a movie directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, elder statesman of Oscar-garnering films, a B-movie? Geezerxploitation, perhaps? I say B-movie in the most respectful manner — it has the energy, the simplicity and the woo-hoo of a B-movie. You don’t miss for a second the ponderous “here’s what I’m saying about life” quality that would be required to make this a Serious and Artistically Significant movie. You could replace half of Eastwood’s lines with growls (the ones that aren’t just growls already) and it wouldn’t hurt the movie one bit.

Because, Walt (Eastwood) is one grizzled old dude. At the funeral for his beloved wife, he isn’t sad so much as pissed — pissed at the know-nothing peach-fuzzed young priest (Christopher Carley) leading the service, at his prosperous but ungrateful sons, at their miserable wives and at their snotty spoiled pierced children. He’s also pissed at his Asian neighbors, who are gathering to celebrate a birth on the same day his family gathers at his home after his wife’s funeral. He growls out in their direction and barks at their teenage son Thao (Vee Vang) when he comes over to ask for jumper cables.

Thao doesn’t seem so taken aback by this behavior. Perhaps because his grandmother sits on her porch insulting Walt in her native language — the family are relatively recent immigrants from Southeast Asia. Perhaps because, kind of a quiet kid, Thao is used to getting pushed around — by his mother (Brooke Chia Thao), by his teenage sister Sue (Ahney Her) and by his thuggish cousin (Doua Moua), who has recently started calling himself Spider and wants Thao to join his gang. But Thao, who is bookish and quiet and kind, doesn’t want to. It’s his unwillingness to go with Spider, even when Spider questions his manhood, that leads to a scuffle in their front yard, which leads to Thao and Spider tumbling on to Walt’s lawn, which leads to Walt, shotgun in hand, growling “get off my lawn” followed by a string of expletives and racial epithets directed at Spider’s fellow thugs. Walt chases the gang away but, despite his many many Korean-War-era ethnic descriptors, he doesn’t chase Thao and his family away. They are grateful for his assistance with Spider, even more grateful because Walt didn’t shoot Thao when — a few days earlier at Spider’s urging — Thao had made a sad attempt at stealing Walt’s mint condition Ford Gran Torino.

Walt wants nothing to do with his neighbors but he slowly warms to them — in part because of Thao’s quiet politeness (so unlike Walt’s own grandchildren) and in part because of Sue’s sass (she brushes off Walt’s insults and invites him over for barbecue).

I suppose under all the cussing and the violence and the entire dictionary’s-worth of new racist nicknames and the Ford-crafted beauty, Gran Torino does have more going on than just a B movie. There’s Walt’s uneasy relationship with God. Years after the Korean War he’s still nursing the emotional wounds he got there, unwilling to talk to his wife’s pushy priest but aware that he’s carrying some big guilt. There’s the relationship with his sons, which isn’t nearly as black and white as it appears in the beginning. There’s some socioeconomic stuff, some stuff about immigration and assimilation. Peel back one of the layers of Eastwood growly goodness and you’ll find serious storytelling stuff going on there. What’s great about Gran Tornio is that you can enjoy these bits of intellectual commentary and still enjoy all the scrappy-old-codger stuff that is this movie’s draw.

Gran Torino is a brainy action movie, a clever and energy-filled artsy movie and a wide-awake drama, all at the same time. More importantly it’s fun and it gives us an Eastwood having an absolute blast. A-

Rated R for language throughout and some violence. Directed by Clint Eastwood and written by Nick Schenk and Dave Johannson, Gran Torino is an hour and 56 minutes long and is distributed by Warner Bros. It is scheduled to open wide on Friday, Jan. 16.