Yet the truth turns out to be a little more mixed and not quite as hyped up as the media would have you believe. His performance is excellent, perhaps not the best of his career, and the film has a few problems. However it is a damn good film and one I would recommend, but Eastwood has definitely done better.
He's one of the last Western people left living in a neighbourhood that is rapidly becoming an all-Asian community but he refuses to leave the home he's lived in for so long. At the same time as his wife passes, a Korean family move into the house next door, and his bitterness finds an outlet.
Thao Vang Lor, played by Bee Vang, is the young boy next door who is lacking a direction in life, and after a run in with some local gangs he is primed for an initiation with the Asian gang. His initiation is to steal the gorgeous 1972 Gran Torino that Kowalski stores in his garage and worships as a time gone by.
Kowalski catches him and chases him off his property, and as he begins a friendship with the girl next door, Sue Lor played by Ahney Her, the boy is forced to ask for penance. He works for Kowalski for a week and their friendships grow and barriers and preconceptions fade.
Yet the gang are never too far away, and events between them are escalating.
I'm going to leave the Clint Eastwood performance part of this review till later and concentrate on other aspects first, and particularly the poorer parts of the film. However the poor does not outweigh the good and the excellent, so stay with me here.
It did seem a little sloppy at times, especially considering Eastwood's usual style is filled with deliberate and often slow and unassuming camera movements and editing, ensuring the audience are concentrating on exactly what they should be for the scene and the story. However with Gran Torino I was rather surprised by some scenes that were missing that trait.
There was scene where a baby is receiving a blessing in the Korean household and as something is thrown on the floor the cameraman leans over and scrambles to find what he's supposed to be looking at, it happens again later on with the tape measure scene. That hurried movement pulled me right out of the film and I began wondering what was going on, it felt far from natural and unassuming.
There is also some shaky-cam work in the early part of the film that did take my attention. Then there were some pretty roughly edited scenes which stilted the flow of the film.
One great example of this is when we saw the Korean family talking to Kowalski on his porch steps about giving the boy some work to do for the week. After he promises to come back tomorrow the film cuts to Kowalski sitting on his porch and saying “I never thought he would come” and standing up. It feels as though there's nothing between these two scenes and the edit is extremely abrupt.
Another poorly edited moment was where the boy is being bought tools for his new job and we instantly cut to him stepping off a bus, not sure if he's come from the tool shop, work, or home and heading to work, we're left uncertain until later on when he explains where he was coming from.
This harsh cut feeling was apparent a couple of times in the film and I feel really did jolt you out of the story. Luckily, again, most of this was in the first half of the film and you soon get over them. However it's just not something I expected from the Eastwood directing I've seen to date.
The slow, deliberate work of Eastwood is there too, and most often it's there when he's in front of the camera, but more of him later. Let's talk about the rest of the cast, a cast which includes amateur and first time actors, something that really does show in the film.
There are three actors who struggle to varying degrees with the film. The first, and perhaps the worst, is the priest played by Christopher Carley. I understand that Father Janovich is supposed to be a young man, inexperienced with life, but his acting really does stand out like a sore thumb, particularly in his scenes next to Eastwood. He looks embarrassed and really struggling with his lines. There's no believability in them at all.
It's fair to say that his performance does get a little better as the film goes on, and he's much more bearable in the latter half, mainly around the time his character gets some strength of will to him.
It's not just Carley though, both Vang and Her also give amateur performances, although they don't struggle with the lines as much as Carley does with his. To begin with Her seems ill at ease with her lines, but as her character becomes more comfortable with Kowalski and becomes more sarcastic towards him, so her acting relaxes and she becomes much more at ease with her role. Come her big dramatic scene you do believe in the character, and she carries that moment extremely well.
Vang is similar, but his performance changes for the better when he's playing the role for a bit of comedy. When he's playing the role in more dramatic circumstances, particularly when he's angry, it seems as though he's not able to give the same natural performance.
However I have to say that the gap between Eastwood and the two Asian actors is much, much less than that between Eastwood and Carley. The two actors are much better, and their performances really settle in as the film continues, Her much more than Vang.
Okay. Enough of that. I've talked about the poor, and it is worth noting that although all these things do take the film down in the rankings of Eastwood films, but it doesn't make it a bad film, it's still a really good film, believe me. What makes it so good? Well I'm about to elaborate, it's Clint Eastwood.
The opening of the film seems a little heavy handed with Clint Eastwood's character, there aren't any real subtleties in the introduction of Kowalski or his family, but it works and we get into the film rather quickly and the character evens out a few scenes later.
Kowalski brings us every major character that Eastwood has played rolled into one. The one that is getting the most notice is Dirty Harry, Eastwood has taken that character, placed him in a very real and human world, and given him human emotions and failings.
It's not just Dirty Harry that we see in Kowalski though, there's Philo Beddoe from Any Which Way But Loose and there are even aspects of the character from The Bridges of Madison County, Robert Kincaid. Look at the other characters from his other films and you'll see a little of each in Walt Kowalski.
That's one of the great aspects of the film, the way that the character has been created and Eastwood plays him to give homage to so many others from his career. We see them through the moments of comedy, of emotion, tension building, and the expected hard-edged and bitter character.
There's usually a few scenes where you see traits of each of these characters appear the most, and one of those scenes recreates a classic film moment where Eastwood blows away any Dirty Harry performance with the power of Walt Kowalski. It's an astounding scene and Eastwood powers it home with a closing moment that genuinely had me cowering at the character.
However don't be affected by the advertising and thinking that it's all about an angry character and revenge, for that's what it seems like from some of the posters and marketing. No, the emotion is played high and at times can really pack a punch, much stronger than the angrier aspect of the film.
In fact some of the more powerful scenes between Kowalski and the gang are those moments where he uses his fingers to point and shoot at them in warning. This is really the closest we come again to that one Dirty Harry moment. The rest hits harder emotionally.
The scenes that mark the high point of Her's performance and mark one of the most emotional sections of the film, are where she returns home after the drive-by shooting. The scene is played out beautifully, and without words it has even more impact.
Although the entire film is an emotional journey for our main character, this is the key moment that turns him around and sets him on his course.
What follows are a number of scenes where Kowalski is deliberating over what his next actions should be, these are strong moments for his character, and not only change him but also the tone of the film for the audience.
The closing of the film is written and played out really well, although the imagery and symbolism that Eastwood uses for Kowalski is a little much and is reminiscent of the heavy handed opening. However it's a tiny blip in a perfectly crafted ending that really does make a great conclusion to what has come before, and one you may well not expect, not just in the film but also in his career
What's especially great about the film is that it's not all about Eastwood's superb performance or the great script. There's a strong message woven in there about family relationships and mostly about respect for ourselves and others around us. It points a finger at our society, at the selfishness, disrespect and disconnection that is all too commonplace between strangers and even families.
Gran Torino is a fantastic story and the journey for the character is one that you really find yourself pulled into and fascinated by. Eastwood gives a wonderful performance which isn't as narrow and shallow as the Dirty Harry style marketing would suggest, it's a much wider and deeper than that and incorporates so much of his past career.
Although there are some issues in the film with secondary actors and a few moments of camera work and editing, there's no doubt that this is Eastwood's film, and he delivers a blistering performance which could provide for a wonderful finale to a superb career in front of the camera.
The film isn't all an older Dirty Harry story though, it carries humour, pathos, and huge amounts of emotional relevance for us all, and as the film progresses you'll find more and more connection with it and as you leave the cinema you'll find it stays with you for some time.
Gran Torino is hugely satisfying and entertaining, with an excellent performance from Clint Eastwood that is screaming of more to come. This film is a definite must see and one that I feel I really want to return to again.