Billed as Clint Eastwood’s last acting role, Gran Torino would certainly be an appropriate one for him to end his acting career on. A deconstruction of and farewell to all of the tough guy characters of his early career, it provides a wonderful end-note to his long and distinguished career. He has directed films since, and may yet go back to acting, but Clint’s best films tend to be when he both directs and acts, and Gran Torino is definitely one of his better films.
Clint plays Walt Kowalski, an embittered Korean War veteran whose wife has recently died. He dislikes all his neighbours, since his area is mostly inhabited by Korean immigrants; but when the family next door is threatened by gang violence, he becomes a reluctant hero to his community, becoming close friends with Thao (Bee Vang), a young boy being pressured into joining a gang.
Gran Torino isn’t really a comedy, but it’s a very funny film all the same. Walt may be a bitter, racist old man, but it quickly becomes apparent that his apparent racism is just a defence mechanism to hide his loneliness; he offends everyone equally, and therefore means no one any ill will, and readily becomes friends with his Korean neighbours when given the chance to do so. The combination of him cracking jokes at the expense of his new friends and Thao misinterpreting Walt’s advice is rarely laugh-out-loud funny, but the undercurrent of gentle humour is an unusual touch for a Clint Eastwood film, and a very welcome one.
Still, it’s not all light-hearted fun, and when Gran Torino turns serious, it gets very dark very quickly. It quickly becomes apparent that the gang which threatens Walt’s neighbours is serious about their threats, and the shift from gentle comedy to the horrors of gang violence is a genuinely moving and horrifying one. And this is where the film really shines: it could have very easily been a film about a rampage of violent revenge against the evils of gang culture, but it quickly becomes apparent that Walt’s attempts to keep the gangs away with threats of violence just makes matters even worse for Thao and his family. The ultimate message of the film is that it’s better to solve problems peacefully, since violence just begets more violence, which is an extremely appropriate note for Clint’s potential last acting role to end on, since he made his name playing violent vigilantes like Dirty Harry and The Man With No Name.
It’s not in the absolute top tier of Clint’s work, and is certainly not as good as Unforgiven, his other great deconstruction of his past work, but Gran Torino is an important film in the Clint canon all the same. It was completely, and unfairly, overlooked by the Academy when it came out, not being even nominated for a single Oscar; it may not be one of Clint Eastwood’s very best films, but it’s an extremely fitting final chapter for his acting career, and a film that deserves to be seen, especially for fans of his work.