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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


It's been said that Unforgiven represented Clint Eastwood re-evaluating the violence that marked some of his early Westerns. It could just as easily be said that his new film, Gran Torino, finds him re-evaluating the rule-breaking vigilantism of the Dirty Harry pictures. Eastwood's character, a grizzled old widower named Walt Kowalski, is probably akin to how Harry Callahan would have ended up a decade or two after retiring from the police force. Cranky, bitter, and tired of everyone else's crap (including his own grown children's), Walt just wants to be left alone. And when an interloper dares to set foot on his lawn, he's just as likely to pull a shotgun as anything.

Walt's peace is shattered when a Hmong family moves in next door. He tries to ignore them, but is unable to. The teenage boy in the clan, a quiet kid named Tao (Bee Vang), is forced against his will to participate in a gang initiation. His assignment: steal Walt's beloved vintage Gran Torino. Walt catches him in the act and is ready to administer a thumping when Tao's sister, Sue (Ahney Her), intervenes. She and Walt strike up an unlikely friendship that ultimately leads to him begrudgingly mentoring Tao. Before long, he becomes surprisingly close with the family, and when the Hmong gang starts trying to recruit Tao again, Walt decides the best way to handle the situation is to open up a can of whoop-ass. It takes him by surprise that threatening the gang does not intimidate them the way he expects. Suddenly, Walt has to re-think his long-ingrained methods of resolving conflict through aggression.

Gran Torino is quite an interesting film because it does a lot of very different things, yet somehow manages to combine them all with ease. At its core is what I mentioned above: an examination of whether two-fisted solutions really work in today's excessively violent world. Yet the film is also a good-natured tale of cultural diversity. Walt is initially weary of the Hmong family next door - he equates them to the enemies he fought in the Korean War - but eventually comes to respect them as individuals. Eastwood (as director) and screenwriter Nick Schenk avoid any annoying politically correct warm-and-fuzziness by dulling Walt's edges only slightly. Even while finding affection for Sue and Tao, he still has a tendency to talk gruffly and to let the occasional slur slip out. Walt's old school prejudices even lead to some moments of genuine comedy; his lack of sensitivity is shown, through humor, to be outdated and silly.

Now, if comedy, humanity, and an anti-vigilantism message sound like an unholy mixture, you're probably right. In most hands, that would be a recipe for disaster. However, we're talking Eastwood here. As a filmmaker and an actor, he is known for a light touch. He is distinctly not known for beating you over the head with the content of his movies. Therefore, the combo generally comes together in a pleasing way. At worst, you could say that the plot of Gran Torino is perhaps a bit on-rails. You generally know where it's headed before it gets there: Walt's cynical heart will warm, he will reach out to his estranged children, the Hmong gang will return on cue, a message about the futility of violence will be delivered, etc.

While not quite on the same level as Eastwood's masterpieces like Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby, this is still a strong addition to his body of work, and that's because it's darn entertaining. Eastwood's greatest strength as a storyteller is to leave things uncluttered. He trusts the audience to be able to follow him wherever he goes. This particular film tackles a lot of subjects, yet they all intertwine. Eastwood knows this, and assumes that we will be able to make the connections as well. Gran Torino gets laughs when it wants to be funny, earns your empathy when it wants to be affecting, and makes you think when it speaks its mind.

Few other actors could have pulled off the role of Walt Kowalski. Jack Nicholson, perhaps, but that's about it. Eastwood has that quality where you like him - and, more importantly, see the good in him - even when playing flawed characters. We accept Walt's gruffness and bigotry because we know that, deep down, that's not him. I love the scenes where he is accosted by Father Janovich (the excellent Christopher Carley), a young priest who promised Walt's wife he would look after him. Walt wants nothing to do with the priest, rudely shooting him down time and again. The padre persists because he, like us, can tell that Walt is saying one thing but thinking another. Eastwood shows us both those levels of the character - how there's a gulf between the words that come out of his mouth and the thoughts/feelings hidden behind them.

The Hmong actors are not as polished as the film's star is, but they make up for it with charisma, especially Ahney Her. It's got to be tough making your film debut alongside one of the greatest movie stars the cinema has ever known. The best compliment I can pay the newcomer is to say that she holds her own, finding chemistry with Eastwood that is the movie's heart and soul. Bee Vang is also solid as Tao, playing the character as shy, sensitive, and uncertain.

Gran Torino builds to a climax that is the tiniest bit implausible, but which is emotionally satisfying. Dirty Harry Callahan always liked the feeling of power he got staring at someone from behind the barrel of a gun. So does Walt Kowalski. Both men have been in situations where that response was essentially required. However, not every situation is the same. A few of them call for something slightly different. It's hard to say whether Harry was ever going to be open to learning that lesson, but Walt is. And by learning that lesson, he also proves to be a magnificent teacher to the young Hmong neighbors who look up to him. It's a terrific story, as well as another Eastwood winner.

( 1/2 out of four)

DVD Features:

Gran Torino will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray on June 9 in its original widescreen aspect ratio. Picture and sound quality are excellent.

Eastwood never puts a lot of the traditional bonus features on his DVDs. He doesn't do audio commentaries, preferring to let the films speak for themselves, and his shooting style is so economic that there are likely few (if any) deleted scenes to be included. That said, Warner Home Video has found a way to provide us with some supplementary material that nicely compliments the feature itself.

"Manning the Wheel" is a ten-minute segment that looks at car culture, as seen through the filmmakers' eyes. Eastwood and other prominent cast and crew members reminisce about their first and/or favorite cars. They also offer up some thoughts on how his passion for the titular automobile drives the movie's main character, Walt. Eastwood shares some interesting perspectives on Walt, and it's clear that he shares a love of cars.

"Gran Torino: More Than a Car" is a four-minute feature that follows up on the man/car connection by taking us to the Woodward Dream Cruise in Detroit. During this annual event, vintage car owners parade their classic automobiles around the city. We see several of these owners interviewed as they talk about their hobby. In the most telling section, a grown man becomes teary as he explains it isn't the car he loves so much as the fact that he was able to restore it with his father.

The Blu-Ray of Gran Torino will include both these features, plus "The Eastwood Way," an exploration of the film from the dual perspective of the actor and the director.

Gran Torino is rated R for language throughout and some violence. The running time is 1 hour and 56 minutes.

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