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Gran Torino (2008)

CRUMBLIES… 5 crumblies

I’m not messing with you – go watch Gran Torino now. Actually, no, watch The Shootist (1976) then watch Gran Torino. For it is very much the same film. Gran Torino does for Clint Eastwood, albeit with massive dollops of racism (which, unnervingly, transmutes into lovable-old-codger-racism), what The Shootist does for the Duke. It’s brilliant in its own way, but for me, it’s John Wayne all the way. His film was a proper ending to a career that led up to that story told that way. Gran Torino – hmmmm – is a different thing. A fantastic, different thing.

Eastwood (Walt Kowalski) has just lost his wife, doesn’t get on with his family, belittles his baby-faced Catholic priest (baby-faced and brave Christopher Carley) and has deep-seated issues with Asians. He and his fellows in the army did awful things in the Korean conflict of the 1950s (I was there – we made snow-women and took day-trips to Tokyo; M*A*S*H happened over the other hill). We don’t learn what Walt’s memories are, but they still burn: he carries guilt and dislike in equal measure.

Then some Hmong folk move in next door. Now, I’m not going to quote him here, but apart from some comedy grunting, Walt’s dialogue is 90% racist insult. There’s a lovely moment early on when he is sat on his veranda, next door’s grandma (Chee Thao) is sat on hers, and they both chunter racist contempt in their own languages. A moment of comedy, this sets the scene for making Walt’s more repugnant characteristics at least tolerable. For learning to like him is the path of the film. And he has to soften up (we’re in ‘Let it Go, Grandpa’ territory, here).

You’re wondering about the Gran Torino. The sparkly old 1970s car is Walt’s pride and joy. He polishes it, fixes it, treasures it. So his introduction to the boy next door, who tries stealing the thing to (unwillingly) buy his way into a street gang, ends in gunfire and rage. And, for a moment, gobbed up blood on the floor. For Walt is also dying.

The boy is Thao, played by Bee Vang as a recalcitrant, nerdy and low-confidence teen, and uncharmingly called Toad by Walt. His sister Sue, the terrific Ahney Her, is full of social and cultural explanations. As the community starts to see the old racist as a hero (he does stuff), Sue takes Walt into their world and they in turn bring Thao to his door to be a free slave for a week. Yup – bonding time. Walt and Thao swoop towards friendship as the boy does all the chores (including tidying up the rest of the street) and Walt tries to turn him into a man. Most of this involves giving the boy the psychological armour to get the girl, a job and fend off the violent gravity of the street gangs.

It’s like the film is looking back at you to see Eastwood stick to the offensiveness whilst making friends of the neighbours. Nothing too chatty, mind, for language barriers persist. But they respect him, he respects them, and his redemption for past crimes is on the way. For the gangs come to get his neighbours – Sue in particular – and that demands a tailored response. Whilst almost exactly the same as the Duke’s ending in The Shootist (1976), (we have a suit, we have a growly goodbye, we even have a barber), Walt’s engagement with the enemy is gentler.

Gran Torino is special. It speaks to the old, it asks the young to understand and love them, it shows us the good people in bad neighbourhoods as a team. Whereas the Duke exited stage left and the world trampled over his character’s memory, Eastwood’s Walt improves the world on his way out of it. For that, it’s almost worth hearing him sing the Gran Torino song over the credits…

Buy it, watch it, but like old Jack said, say goodbye to the Duke first…

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