Largely trailed as Dirty Harry’s last hurrah, Clint Eastwood’s possibly last starring role is far more than that. Sure he draws on his ‘ultimate badass’ persona, occasionally to such excess that he’s downright hilarious (and he’s now such a wholly assured director that it’s unquestionably intentional). He plays Walt Kowalski, a Korean War vet unable to emotionally connect with his family, and who relies on petty racism to manage retired life in a Detroit suburb which has racially transformed out of all recognition. Suddenly widowed, he falls back on beer, insults the rookie local priest and barely manages to conceal his disdain for the Korean family next door. The tension gets worse when boy next door Thao (Bee Vang) is pushed by a local gang into stealing Walt’s prized Gran Torino car, a relic of the halcyon days of the Detroit auto industry of which he was a part. Worlds collide.
Yet Walt is not a bad man, just an angry one, emotionally crippled from his war experiences, and before Thao’s and his lives come together, Walt rescues Thao’s fiesty sister Sue (Ahney Her) from another street gang. “Ever notice how you come across somebody once in a while that you shouldn’t have messed with? That’s me.” Gorgeous stuff from the master anti-hero, as he realises the people who long for the values of long ago aren’t all of his complexion. Sue in turn quickly respects Walt for what he is, Walt subsequently finding her community far more generous than his own, leaving him unable to continue justifying his dislike of his own family, nor his casual bigotry. The uneasy friendship which springs up between Walt and Thao is an ironic success, and parallels Walt’s failures with his own sons.
The film positions Eastwood once again as a bewildered, just, yet pathologically angry man, within a scene of community breakdown. That it doesn’t quite provide the gritty edge it perhaps needs to frame the story most effectively is certainly not a hindrance to the enjoyment of the movie however. Eastwood as director knows how to stab the viewer emotionally and tug the heartstrings in equal measure, but it’s as the leading man where he shines here. Where his anti-heroes in previous roles meted out justice to ruthless effect, Walt becomes more thoughtful, and his permanent solution to save Sue and Thao is quite unexpected. It’s clear from the outset that Eastwood is unlikely to go for a happy ending, but he also aims this as a film very much for our time with its message that anger and revenge, although appealing, don’t work in solving modern society’s very complex problems. I do wish those problems could have been fleshed out somewhat better, and that some of the supporting acting (Vang in particular) could have been stronger, but this was clearly always meant to be a one man show, and nobody does it better. 9/10