Harry Callahan would respect Walt Kowalski. Both men look at life through eyes narrowed in suspicion, both know their way around firearms, and both take no lip from punks. In fact, if Dirty Harry were an auto worker in Detroit rather than a cop in San Francisco, he might have wound up just like Walt, living out his widowed retirement years in a meticulously maintained home, watching the neighborhood decay around him and snarling at the local Asian street gangs, "Get off of my lawn."
Walt is the latest character in Clint Eastwood's portrait gallery, a flinty, unapologetically racist Korean War vet who is not afraid to brandish his Army-issue M-1 Garand rifle or Colt .45 when the situation requires it. He enters "Gran Torino" as an antihero, rasping profanities at his thoughtless adult children, his parish priest, his Hmong neighbors and the modern world in general.
He's defined by the '72 Ford coupe he helped build and keeps in immaculate repair in his garage. The Gran Torino is no classic, but it's a sweet metaphor, representing a time when America was on top. The Big Three looked at competitors from Japan with disdain for their fussy quality control and wimpy efficiency. We built things for ourselves, even if they were engineered for obsolescence. As Archie and Edith Bunker used to sing, "Those were the days."
In "Gran Torino," Walt sits on his porch with his dog and a cooler of beer, glaring at a changed world. He doesn't like the Hmong immigrants who have moved in. Perhaps they remind him of his wartime experiences, where he won a Silver Star for battlefield actions that still haunt him half a century after the fact. Like many late-period Eastwood characters, Walt is a critique of the violent characters Eastwood played in the 1960s the Man With No Name with second thoughts. He has traded blood for blood in the past, although he has misgivings about what he has done.
Slowly, unwillingly, Walt is drawn into the life of the family next door when teenage Thao (Bee Vang) and his older sister Sue (Ahney Her) run afoul of local hoodlums. Walt stands up for Sue in a sidewalk confrontation, facing off against a gang of young thugs and staring them down with sheer ice-cold bravado. He straightens out Thao when the kid is pressured by gangbangers to steal Walt's car.
Walt begins spending time with his new neighbors, warming to them. He takes timid Thao under his wing and enjoys bantering with Sue, who bats away Walt's racist epithets with spunk and sass. Then they are forced into a confrontation that puts to the test Walt's history of violence, his newfound sense of loyalty to his neighbors and his sense of moral responsibility.
Eastwood directs the film with his usual solid, no-fuss craftsmanship, sketching the characters economically, cranking up the dramatic urgency and also tossing off good laughs. The script, by Nick Schenk, appears to be moving down the formula assembly line to a predictable conclusion, but there are twists in store. Eastwood has no patience for easy conventions. The stunning payoff is one of those inspirations that feels inevitable in retrospect but completely fresh and unexpected in the moment. If you see it coming, your vision is better than mine.
Eastwood's second film this year is a compelling study of anger and violence and the guilt and shame that shadow them. He has sat high in the saddle for decades, but rarely has he ridden so tall as in the driver's seat of "Gran Torino."