Gran Torino finally opened to wide release this weekend, and rapidly earned the number one spot at the box office.

It deserves every single dollar it’s made.

Many have been calling it a type of Dirty Harry film, harking back to the old days when director/star Clint Eastwood (Million Dollar Baby, Changeling) ran around as Callahan, asking punks if they felt lucky before blowing a hole in them with his .44 Magnum. Indeed, the trailers make it seem as if Gran Torino is a last hurrah action film for Eastwood, before he takes his final bow somewhere down the line.

The truth is, Gran Torino is not an action film by any true meaning of the word. Yes, there is action in it, but it’s action not just for the sake of showing some blood and violence; it’s organically grown from the storyline, from the result of consequences brought about by the acts and doings of the characters within the film. In short, Gran Torino is a character piece about an irascible Korean War vet who also happens to be an unrepentant bigot, who doesn’t exactly learn the error of his ways, but learns that some people he hates are better than others, and chooses–just as he did in the war–to stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves.

It’s an impressive and important thing that Gran Torino is an Eastwood starrer. In many ways, it has to be: the thought of a 78 year-old man going head-on against youthful gang members would be laughable had any other actor played the lead…but because it’s Eastwood, the man who virtually invented scowling, whose fed-up cop Callahan beat the path for all other “loose cannon” cops to follow in his footsteps… the suspension of disbelief necessary to invest in the film not only clicks on automatically, it’s maintained throughout the film without one instance of being lost. Eastwood’s steely gaze, the simmering quiver in his jaw and a patented growl that might very well have belonged to Wolverine’s father, provides much of the dramatic forewarning and humor–yes, there is well-placed humor to be found–for the majority of the picture.

Walt Kowalski’s (Eastwood) wife has just passed away. Now that the only true calming influence in his life is gone and he’s alone, Walt’s finding things about the people around him irritate him more than they ever did…and apparently, he’s been irritated for a long time. Father Janovich (Christopher Carley), who performed his wife’s funeral and promised to get Walt to go to confession, is a kid fresh out of seminary, and who Walt disdains as having no true experience with life or death. Walt’s teenage grandchildren are self-absorbed disappointments, while their parents keep attempting to shuffle him off to a nursing home. And when Hmong neighbors move in next door, it’s all Walt can do to keep from going apoplectic.

I mentioned there was humor in this film, and it comes from one of the oddest places: Walt’s bigoted behavior. Notice that I haven’t used the word “racist”…that’s because there is a slight but definitive difference between the two. A racist concerns themselves with the belief that certain characteristics of a people–skin color, place of origin, facial features or other–determines alleged ethnic superiority or inferiority. A bigot has firmly held beliefs, but they are simply obstinate about them, and spread over a wider field of general intolerance to a people, as opposed to saying “because you are a certain race, I’m better than you.” Bigots tend to have their misguided beliefs stem from particular instances or incidents which skew their worldview. Racists tend to either be raised to believe long-held notions or are cultivated in an arena of like minded simpletons. People tend to be bigots before they become racists. It doesn’t always happen, but bigots can actually change.

Does this excuse them from their knee-jerk comments on ethnicity or culture? Not in the slightest. However, some mild forgiveness can be bestwowed upon Walt’s character, as it’s understood that no one who comes back from any war is ever quite the same person, and has a lot of anger held over within them. Plus, when Walt calls people of different ethnicities various slurs–and continually refers to his next door neighbor Thao (Bee Vang, making his acting debut) as “Toad”, or his would-be girlfriend Youa (Choua Kue, making her acting debut) as “Yum-yum” (and admittedly, she is quite yummy looking)–the fact that in real life Eastwood is almost universally considered to be one of the nicest guys to ever walk the Earth, and we know some of Walt’s history, Eastwood’s not-entirely-nasty delivery of these words surprisingly allows for non-anxious laughter to be allowed.

Perhaps to balance out the main character’s intolerance, the audience gets to learn a fair amount of the Hmong people, and how they’re different from other Asian cultures. To the script’s credit, the lesson comes easily through interactive dialogue between Walt and Thao’s bossy sister Sue (Ahney Her, making her acting debut), and never once feels like crammed in exposition to keep the plot moving.

The Gran Torino in the title does indeed refer to the 1972 classic car, but the car itself isn’t truly a centerpiece of the film; it’s a bridging device for Walt’s first encounter with Thao, which leads to an encounter with the gang trying to recruit the hapless young man, which in turn leads to Walt becoming the reluctant neighborhood hero, which in turn leads to other things, among them a most unexpected ending. One thing which helps hold the already strong story by writers Nick Schenk (BodogFight, I Shot Myself) and Dave Johannson (Gran Torino is his writing debut) together is the almost uniformly solid acting from all involved, especially the major Hmong actors, almost all of whom are making their acting debuts on this picture. Ahney Her as Sue is one of the major prizes of this film, and should definitely go on to greater things. Bee Vang is also effective to a just slightly lesser degree as Thao, but one can see the beginnings of what will one day hopefully be a fine actor. Eastwood took a major gamble going for untried actors on a major release, but his instincts paid off, as they usually do.

And that’s what Gran Torino will be for you, should you choose to go see it: an investment well made, with a satisfying payoff. For those of you seeking out a bloodlust thriller from Eastwood’s old days, be warned: you’ll be mightily disappointed, as the R rating is there mostly for the language. However, if you’re looking for a solid story that keeps you emotionally invested and makes two hours fly by like it was only one, then check out Gran Torino…so far, it’s my favorite ride of this young new year.