No matter how strong the resistance, the inevitable happens and, at a certain point, everything surrenders to time. At 78, Clint Eastwood is truly showing age, but he certainly isn't slowing down. Gran Torino is his second 2008 release as a director, coming on the heels of the demanding period-piece mystery Changeling.
What's funny is, as a filmmaker, Eastwood is still growing, taking risks, deepening in complexity and continually challenging his own image.
Here he plays Walt Kowalski, a deeply embittered retired Detroit auto worker and recent widower, still clinging to his glory years, as if the scrupulously manicured borders of his Highland Park lawn can keep change at bay. But the neighborhood ain't what it used to be, his old friends have died off and been replaced by ceaseless waves of strange new immigrants with no notion of the old traditions and rules that govern Walt's world. His dopey sons are trying to put him in a home, his grandkids are self-centered twerps, about the only thing that hasn't disappointed him is the pristine 1972 Gran Torino parked in his garage, which the Hmong kid next door (Bee Vang) promptly tries to steal as part of a gang initiation. Instead of pumping lead into the little creep, Walt is coerced into letting Thao make amends by working off his debt and cleaning up the neighborhood. In the process, Walt slowly warms to the kid, and to his witty older sister Sue, and begins letting down his defenses and embracing his new friends. But the gang bangers won't let Thao or Sue go so easily and soon enough the old soldier is brandishing his Korean War vintage rifle and forcing punks off his lawn like an old-man Dirty Harry.
It's a hoot watching Clint grumble and grouse his way to enlightenment, even as he spits out a dictionary's worth of arcane racial slurs and stereotypes. Too often this leads to uncomfortable laughs, which don't feel earned but stolen. Walt's a cranky old coot, but his bigotry seems more a matter of habit, from a jocular time when everybody was a Polack or a Mick, simply as a sense of identity. It's also a kick seeing him dismiss a pushy young priest (Christopher Carley) as an "overeducated 27-year-old virgin," but it's a shame he didn't cast better actors to bounce these zingers off.
While it's easy to read Walt as a kiss-off to Eastwood's urban street-sweeper persona of the '70s, it's really the terminus point of the sort of faded gunslinger he's been playing since Heartbreak Ridge, and repeated time and again in such movies as In the Line of Fire and Space Cowboys; where those characters dealt with vanishing virility, this guy's at the end of the trail, and struggling for a graceful exit. Of course, the famously conservative artist Eastwood, has always had a barely hidden secret agenda, addressing the consequences of violence and the need for understanding, a message Gran Torino hammers clumsily home, but at least he's not going softly, and never fading away.