Friday, January 30, 2009

Gran Torino: A Fried Rice Movie Review

[Because sometimes, four sentences just aren't enough...]

I should begin by saying that I'm glad that Gran Torino didn't turn out to be the movie I thought it would be (or the trailers and commercials might lead you to believe), the same sort of last hurrah/last word for the Dirty Harry archetype that Clint Eastwood's bad-ass cowboys received in Unforgiven. And if this does end up being Eastwood's last role, he gave himself a juicy one in Walt Kowalski, a character full of pathos, just enough complexity to be compelling, and perhaps the best sense of humor since he was hanging out with Clyde the orangutuan.

But in terms of tone, this is an incredibly uneven film, starting out with a commentary on modern-day youth (which is portrayed as irredeemably one-dimensional throughout the film), then turning into a fish-out-of-water/world-has-changed-around-him sort of tale. And that might have been an interesting enough movie in itself, but the screenplay doesn't get very introspective. And Eastwood seems more interested in conveying his dismay with a sneer and a growl, anyway.

The story progresses into a clash-of-cultures kind of buddy comedy, which is probably the most compelling aspect of the film because we see Kowalski develop as a character. But along the way, a lot of cheap laugh shortcuts, loaded with Archie Bunker-esque politically incorrect racial epithets, are taken. I know this is where a lot of people have a problem with the movie, but it didn't really bother me. At least in terms of offending me. it's almost too over-the-top to take seriously.

Finally, it veers into deadly serious, try-and-digest-this-during-the-credits drama, and this provides a great example of how Eastwood the director shines when working with veteran actors like Sean Penn and Hilary Swank, professionals who get what their director is trying to accomplish and can get it done in one or two takes. But when he works with less experienced actors - and I don't think it's an insult to label most of those who play Kowalski's Hmong neighbors "amateur" - this approach doesn't serve him well.

In a pivotal scene building toward the movie's climax, Bee Vang, who plays the boy Kowalski has befriended, has to show emotion, and bring it believably. And he fails so badly that it's almost laughable. I actually felt bad for him because he's so clearly over his head as an actor. And I wonder if Eastwood - as a director or an actor - did the best he could with him or just kind of left him hanging.

When this is released on DVD, I'd like to see it again because I wonder if I cut it a break for filming in Detroit. The script is sprinkled with enough little nuggets (mentions of the Lions, resentment for driving foreign cars, etc.), and the locations look familiar enough to appeal to my inner Michigander. Plus, I think the story fits rather believably in metro Detroit, as several areas and neighborhoods have changed in the way Kowalski's does. But could the film's flaws become even more apparent after the stars in my eyes fade away? I have a feeling they might.