Friday, January 9, 2009

Clint's having fun in "Gran Torino"

I can’t help feeling that Clint Eastwood is having a bit of fun with us in “Gran Torino.”

For years Hollywood had been chasing him to do another “Dirty Harry” movie, and the 78-year-old director/actor responded with jokes about the killer detective packing a walker along with his .44 Magnum. Well, “Gran Torino” by all appearances is as close to a Dirty Harry finale as we’re apt to see.

Call it “Dirty Harry on a Pension.”

Walt Kowalski, his character, is not actually a retired cop but worked the factory line at Ford for four decades, putting steering columns in cars like the gleaming green 1972 muscle car that lends the movie its name.

His wife has just died, he doesn’t much care for his middle-aged sons or their families, and he’s pretty much content to sit on his front stoop drinking Pabst Blue Ribbons from a cooler, polishing his beloved ride and keeping his little plot tidy.

Annoyances intrude from all sides. There’s the eager young priest (Christopher Carley) who won’t let up his attempts to crack Walt’s crusty exterior. And his Detroit neighborhood, once a haven for hard-working auto workers like himself, has grown run down and invaded by immigrant Hmong families.

Trouble brews amongst some Hmong gangsters hassling the fatherless family next door, and soon enough Harry … er, I mean, Walt is flashing some high-caliber hardware and laying down the law. He even turns the ultimate old geezer whine -- “Get off of my lawn!” – into a cold-blooded one-liner.

But this isn’t really what the movie is about. The heart of it is Walt’s growing friendship with Thao (Bee Vang), the teen neighbor who tries to steal his Torino as a gang initiation. Assigned by his honor-bound mother to work for Walt to save face, Thao gets an apprenticeship in Manliness 101 – or at least how they taught it circa 1952. There are lessons about buying tools, asking girls out, getting a job and how to trade insulting banter with other guys.

Speaking of insults, this movie probably contains more racial epithets and ethnic slurs than has been heard since a Don Rickles marathon. Walt freely refers to his neighbors as “gooks” and accuses them of wanting to eat his dog. My personal favorite was terming three of Thao’s romantic competitors as “click-clack, ding-dong and Charlie Chan.”

But the way Eastwood and screenwriter Nick Schenk present the material, it gets the audience laughing instead of taking offense. It’s not so much that we’re guffawing at off-color jokes, but at the idea of such an out-of-touch oldster thinking it’s OK to still talk this way.

Eastwood seems to be having a high old time poking fun at his tough-guy persona, and uses his wattled appearance to comment on the absurdity of a septuagenarian vigilante. In “Gran Torino,” Clint Eastwood finally gets to put Dirty Harry out to pasture – on his own, wry terms.

Three stars out of four

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