I enjoy a nice Unforgiven viewing as much as the next guy, but I’ve never really bought into the whole cult of Clint — for movies that are supposed to disassemble and analyze the various aspects of American manhood, Eastwood’s films often strike me as curiously dull. During A Perfect World, for instance — a movie I went to see knowing full well that Kevin Costner was Eastwood’s co-star, and hoping two negatives would produce a positive — I’m fairly certain I had an out of body experience, during which my spirit floated to the ceiling of the nearly empty theater and took a long nap. I went into Gran Torino, in other words, expecting very little; I certainly didn’t plan to feel a bitter swell of nostalgia as the closing credits rolled. But life is full of surprises, and as it turns out, Clint — and by extension Gran Torino — has a few too.
Billed in advance as a sort of unofficial sequel to the Dirty Harry movies, Torino stars Eastwood as Walt Kowalski, a retired auto worker who, as the movie opens, is in attendance at his wife’s funeral. It quickly becomes clear that aside from his dearly departed better half, Walt wants very little to do with anyone — not his kids, nor their kids, nor the young, well-meaning priest that reluctantly promised Walt’s wife he’d look after him. And certainly not the families on his street, which no longer have familiar Polish surnames; Walt’s neighborhood has changed, with an influx of Hmong immigrants replacing the solidly Caucasian blue-collar demographic with which he identifies. He’s a grumpy, openly racist old man, but Nick Schenk’s screenplay does a better job of generating empathy for the character than you might think; surrounded by clueless kids, grasping grandchildren, and neighbors who seem to have no pride in their homes, Walt comes across at first as a sort of seething, epithet-spouting version of Dick Loudon, the character Bob Newhart played on Newhart, a guy who feels like the last oasis of sanity in a world gone mad.
And not unlike Loudon, Walt Kowalski is good for plenty of laughs; Torino‘s first act actually plays out as a sort of playful nipple twist on Eastwood’s flinty-eyed on-screen persona, and though it occasionally veers a little too deep into parody — the shot of Walt going bug-eyed with rage after receiving a grabber arm and a retirement home pep talk for his birthday is uncomfortably over the top — the casually offensive dialogue Eastwood’s given is absolutely perfect for his aggressive, gravelly delivery. He’s even believable enough that when he shoulders a shotgun and growls “get off my lawn!” at a pack of brawling gang members, I didn’t mind. In fact, I felt a little like cheering.
As a child of the adrenalized ’80s, I took my action heroes for granted; there was no reason to devote any thought to why the final act of every Sylvester Stallone movie made me feel 10 feet tall, or whether the fact that I loved Die Hard meant it was strictly necessary to purchase opening day tickets to Striking Distance (answer: it most certainly was not). That’s just what you did — the cineplex of that era was an action hero buffet, from more substantial, fiber-rich fare (like Unforgiven) to MSG-laden gunk that tasted great at first but had you wanting to lay down for awhile as you left the theater (the mid-to-late-period works of Messrs. Van Damme and Seagal). There was some deep psychology behind all of it, though, and while I won’t get into it in any depth here, I will say that we were living in a stressful and uncertain era — but one whose villains were easily identifiable, and whose cartoonish proxies could be slain with little more than a machine gun and a pair of chiseled pecs.
These days, that’s all a distant memory — we don’t know where, or really who, the bad guys are, and even the “good guy” seems to have his hand in your wallet and his middle finger in your eye half the time, and our action heroes have started limping off toward political office, or Idaho, or the grave, replaced by limp-dicked echoes like Dwayne Johnson and Hugh Jackman. So much of what we accepted as the American dream — the jobs and the pensions , the sense that service would be rewarded by obligation, the foolish belief that things would always get better — has eroded, or been ripped away, and even for a happy, mostly optimistic guy like me, living in domestic bliss out in the woods and loving a wonderful job, it can sometimes feel like we’ve pissed away every gift that was ever handed down to us, and darkness has us by the ankle and won’t let go.
Which was, for me, what lent Gran Torino an air of powerful, autumnal sadness. Glaring in muted horror at the corroded homes and broken promises that dot his landscape, Walt Kowalski is us — but he’s also Clint Eastwood, and although Clint has enough fight left in him to make you feel safer and stronger for a couple of hours, that’s about it; the next time shit needs fixing, we’re going to have to turn to Christian Bale or Jason Statham, and, well, that’s just depressing. Clint does have one last lesson to teach us, though, and it’s a good one — you may be a little surprised if you go into the movie expecting the sort of ammo-blastin’ third act that the first two-thirds of the movie seems to hint at, but that kind of cheap thrill was always best left to the Seagals of the shoot-’em-up world, guys who wouldn’t know subtext if it held an entire city hostage and demanded $100 billion in ransom money, and who certainly would never think to deliver an inversion on the expectation of vengeance that reminds us of the value of selfless sacrifice. It reminded me a little of Cool Hand Luke, actually — another movie about the folly of men torn off their axes by the loss of the women that kept them anchored, if just barely, and another movie by a guy whose work encourages a thoughtful reappraisal of what it means to be a man. If this really is Clint’s on-screen coda, he picked a helluva way to go out.
Torino arrives on Blu-ray with a smattering of well-chosen extras; although it’s disappointing that we don’t get a commentary track from Eastwood (or anyone else), we do get Warner Bros.’ standard “digital copy” disc, as well as a trio of featurettes: “Manning the Wheel,” a look at how men tend to view cars as an extension of who they are, “Gran Torino: More Than a Car,” which includes interviews with some old-school Detroit car buffs, and a Blu-ray exclusive, “The Eastwood Way,” which offers your standard “inside look” at what went down behind the scenes of the movie. (There’s also supposedly some BD-Live content attached to the movie, but all I got when I accessed that portion of the menu was something that looked like a Warner Bros. screensaver.)