Neighborhood bigot shows a softer side


POSTED: Friday, January 09, 2009

Clint Eastwood's Walt Kowalski character in “;Gran Torino”; is such a crotchety, bitter old coot that when he mutters slammers like “;gooks”; and “;spooks”; and “;zipperheads,”; the words seem to come from a deep well of loathing. They escape past his clenched teeth and slitted eyes anyway. But the shocking line in “;Gran Torino”; comes from Sue, the spirited, feckless Asian girl who's just moved next door to Kowalski. She calls him an American, as if he were some sort of foreigner. Mind you, here's a kid who was born and raised in the United States.





        Rated: R

Opens Friday In Theaters





The exchange gets right to the root of “;Gran Torino,”; and reinforces Eastwood's preoccupation with American race relations. Here, the concept is as simple as it is generally true—foreigners seem odd until they move in next door and you discover they're really OK, and besides, their food is better.

Retired auto worker Kowalski lives in a crumbling Detroit suburb where the real-estate values have plummeted so drastically that immigrants can afford them. The ethnic face of the neighborhood is changing, and as Kowalski sits on his front porch and drinks beer after beer, he sees a lot, and it all upsets him.

The film opens with the funeral of his wife, and right away we learn that Kowalski has little time for organized religion—he's a closet Marxist that way—or his own immediate family, whom he considers spoiled and self-centered. Then the Asians move in next door, and even though he calls them Chinks, they're Hmong, refugees from southeast Asia forced out by the Vietnam War.

(You wonder about the time period of the film. Even though it's set “;today,”; none of the grown-up Hmong in it seem to have learned a single word of English in the last three decades.)

The younger Americanized Hmong have dealt with their outcast status by becoming gangsta wannabes, and they're pressuring Thao, Sue's nerdy brother, to enlist. The price of admission is stealing Kowalski's prized 1971 Gran Torino, which he actually helped build himself back in Detroit's glory days.

One thing leads to another, and Kowalski finds himself a reluctant mentor to Thao. Can you see where this is going? There's a brisk, brutal ending to the film that is telegraphed from the first time Kowalski coughs up a little blood, but essentially, mean old Mr. Kowalski is a marshmallow inside.

The pleasures of “;Gran Torino”; come from Eastwood's flinty, humorous performance, from his no-frills directing, the script's observations about the value of work (and a guy's knowledge of tools), what constitutes adult behavior, a keen sense of time and place, and an appreciation for beer as a social lubricant.

On the other hand, Kowalski seems to drink about two cases of beer a day. How does one do that and look like Clint Eastwood?