You’ll pretty much figure out exactly where “Gran Torino” is taking you within the first 30 minutes, but it’s a testament to the vehicle that you’ll mostly enjoy the ride anyway. Director-star Clint Eastwood brings his advancing age front and center here — he could have called the movie “Grandpa Torino” — with a performance that’s almost shamelessly crowd-pleasing at times.
Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a retired auto worker whose wife has just died. He’s never been close to his sons or to their obnoxious children — the movie pins at least as much blame on Walt himself as it does on “these kids today” — and now he’s living alone in the same working-class Detroit neighborhood which has, over the years, become mostly occupied by the Hmong community.
The racist Walt has tended to steer clear of what he calls his “gook” neighbors, but all that changes when the bright but directionless Thao (Bee Vang) attempts to steal Walt’s classic Gran Torino from his garage as part of a gang initiation. When the gang-bangers return later in the week to beat up Thao, Walt pulls a gun on them and scares them off. (This scene could easily make “Get off my lawn” the new “Make my day” — yet another reason to be grateful that McCain didn’t win the election.)
Walt becomes an unwilling hero to the neighborhood and begins an awkward friendship with Thao’s sister Sue (Ahney Her). Thao’s family insists that the teenager is duty-bound to go to work for Walt, so the retiree makes the kid fix up the crumbling eyesore of a house across the street. The two wind up bonding, and Walt helps Thao get a construction job. (Nick Schenk’s script violates the “show, but don’t tell” rule at this point, making Walt actually say, “Christ, I’ve got more in common with these gooks than I do my own family!” just in case we hadn’t gotten the point.)
Just when Walt seems to have learned to open up to people, however, the unfortunate presence of that Hmong gang still hangs over the proceedings. There’s also the issue of Walt coughing up blood every so often, and both of these plot points lead “Gran Torino” in fairly predictable directions.
Still, as movies about crusty old men whose hearts melt through their friendship with young people go, “Gran Torino” is mostly a hoot, thanks to Eastwood’s Archie-Bunker-with-a-gun performance. Sure, his glower-and-growl moments are right out of sketch comedy, but the irascible Walt winds up being another great seriocomic creation from this iconic American actor.
He’s ably supported by Vang and, particularly, Her, two first-timers who couldn’t be more comfortable on camera. The two of them more than make up for some of the film’s clunkier moments, most of which involve life-and-death conversations between Walt and his fresh-faced parish priest (Christopher Carley). The high points of “Gran Torino” will make viewers likely to forgive its minor sins.