Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Not So Gran Torino

The setting for Gran Torino is the Global Financial Crisis' 'Ground Zero': the suburbs of 'Motor-City' Detroit before the worst of the sub-prime meltdown.

I didn't review Gran Torino when it was first released because I was disappointed with it. It deserves big ticks for: good acting; a tight script and topicality. But the crosses are a lot to bear from such great filmmakers: lack of originality; pedestrian predictability and a dearth of insights. Going by the box office and its continuing presence in Australian cinemas I seem to be in a small minority.

This is a story that has all the elements to make some indelible statements about modern urban society in countries like the U.S. and Australia. It has similarities to the recent Oz film The Combination that explored similar issues in Sydney. We have the clash of cultures and generations. Racial and ethnic tensions. Drugs, guns and gangs. Unemployment.

Walt Kowalski is a widower, a Korean War veteran living next to Hmong refugees. He is an alien in his own neighbourhood. This old autoworker and his classic 1972 Ford Gran Torino represent a past glory that has long faded. Clint Eastwood does modern alienation better than anyone. He’s as bitter as the beer that is his constant companion.

However, his character does not move far beyond the stereotype: the redneck who learns to open up his heart of gold; the poor communicator who is misunderstood; the gun toting but ultimately selfless vigilante; the tough, silent enigma who triumphs over his prejudices. His best friend is his dog Daisy. As the official website's Production Notes announce, “They don’t make them like they used to.”

The rest of the cast do an admirable job: Bee Vang as Thao Vang Lor, the teenager who Walt mentors; Ahney HerSue as his sister Lor; Chee Thao as their Grandma.

Nick Schenk’s screenplay is tight but overly sentimental and very predictable. Still it’s a praiseworthy effort for a first timer screenwriter. It certainly suited Director/Producer Eastwood’s acting style: the stare, the locked jaw. At times he feels like a cross between Michael Douglas in Falling Down and Gary Cooper in High Noon .

So what are the messages of Gran Torino? Prejudice breeds in ignorance. All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. The work ethic and self-reliance are the way out.

This film says little new about multi-cultural societies or the possibilities for reconciling their deep-seated problems. We see the good, the bad and the ugly side of community: family, prejudice and gangbangers. The macho ethos that dominates so much of modern life is skimmed over. We discover during a visit to the barber that real men aren’t racist, sexist, ignorant and rude. That’s just the way they interact with their mates.

The ending is clich├ęd and unsatisfactory in most respects. You would have expected the blatantly telegraphed punches to rankle Million Dollar Baby’s creator a bit more.

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