I think I’ve been a fan of Clint Eastwood as long as I can remember, and that’s a mighty long time. And while that tremendous span of years seems to show in every wrinkle and age spot on his face these days, he is still unquestionably “the man”. His latest film is Gran Torino and it is perhaps the last one in which he will act, preferring instead to work behind the camera from now on. Fittingly, this last role is one that seems to capture what Eastwood’s screen persona has become in recent years. In Walt Kowalski he portrays a grizzled, grumpy old Korean War vet dealing with life after his wife passes away, living in a neighborhood that has changed, much to his dismay, due to the large influx of immigrant Asians. Eastwood mainly squints, snarls and growls his way through the film like only he can. And really, the character only works in this film because it is Eastwood playing it. America treasures Clint Eastwood, so when Walt Kowalski blithely spews racial epithets it’s funny and we like him, simply because we give Walt the same affection and leeway we give to Eastwood. Admit it, he’s our hero and we love watching him do hero stuff!
To avoid giving away any spoilers, there’s only so much I can say here. But I do want to highlight something awesome Clint Eastwood did in creating this movie- he featured the Hmong people, an ethnic group from southeast Asia that I am embarrassed to say I never even heard of before this movie. Thanks to Gran Torino, Google and Wikipedia I now know a little bit more about Hmong people, but man, it is weird being Asian and discovering that Clint Eastwood knows more about this ethnic group than I did. And that of course is a drastic understatement. I mean sure, we all occasionally see stuff like a caucasian customer speaking Japanese in a sushi restaurant. But man, I didn’t know Hmong people even existed and yet Dirty Harry has made a major motion picture centered around them! This is why we love the guy.
And bonus points for not playing the Interchangeable Asian casting game like others films have done (Memoirs of a Geisha, I’m talkin’ bout you). No sir, Gran Torino was actually cast chock full of actual Hmong actors. Well done. I’m glad they did that, but I have to admit it worked to mixed effect. First time actor Bee Vang (16 yrs old) plays Thao, the kid that Kowalski ends up trying to mentor. I realize the character is supposed to be meek and somewhat awkward, but some of the lines were delivered noticeably off-kilter. But that’s ok because as uneven as his performance was, fellow first time actress Ahney Her’s performance more than made up for it. Ahney (also 16 yrs old) plays Sue, the strong, protective, saucy older sister who befriends Walt and teaches him about Hmong customs. And while yes, this is a Clint Eastwood movie where he does plenty of his tough guy Clint Eastwood stuff, it’s really the delightful scenes between Clint and Ahney that carry the movie. Sue’s charm and playfulness is unflappable in the face of Kowalski’s constant racist muttering and that is just completely disarming, to Kowalski, and in retrospect, to the audience of the movie as well. The only way this movie works from an emotional standpoint is if that connection is believable. And the way Ahney Her and Clint Eastwood interact on screen, it’s more than just believable, it’s fun to watch. Two strong characters with cute verbal exchanges where both sides selectively tune out whatever they want. Highly entertaining, especially the way Sue relentlessly calls Kowalski “Wally”.
In the end, the story line may be formulaic and its character struggles not unique, but hey, for me it was still an enjoyable film. It was one final chance to see Clint in action on the big screen, and in Ahney Her, perhaps we are seeing a future star on the rise. And for Hmong people everywhere, I imagine this is their coming out party. Good stuff all the way around.