Clint Eastwood has been on the Hollywood shortlist for directing quality films since directing Sean Penn and Tim Robbins to Oscar acclaim in 2003’s “Mystic River,” winning the Best Director Oscar for 2004’s “Million Dollar Baby” and weathering the lukewarm reception to “Changeling” earlier this year. But that doesn’t excuse movie studios from throwing money at Clint and blindly accepting whatever stained package he gives them in return. This unchecked power has given us “Gran Torino.” If “Million Dollar Baby” is a seasoned boxer, effortlessly throwing little jabs at viewers’ heartstrings and weathering its two-hour runtime in style before dealing an emotional haymaker at the end, “Gran Torino” is its giant, polished muscle car namesake: a powerful engine dragging its weighted steel body and shoddy parts of planned obsolescence that wear out long before the ride is over. It’s pretty and gives you a thrill when you hear the revving horsepower until you see the embarrassing gas mileage and cheap interior.
Of course, that big, loud, manly engine is Clint himself, growling and spitting his way through a part that seems tailor-made just for the venerable action star (imagine that!). He glides through this quintessence of the crotchety old man, nimbly avoiding the terrible script and delivering his more laughable lines with presence and gusto that’ll still send shivers up your spine. Pay attention only to his spirited performance and you’ll survive the show.
Unfortunately, the rest of the cast seems hand-picked to weigh down this gleaming beauty. Ahney Her plays the cheerful young Sue in her debut performance as the most forward and conversational of Walt’s (Clint Eastwood) Asian neighbors, weathering his convenient racism to win over the aging misanthrope. Her amateur delivery will have you cringing with every line she throws at Walt and cripples her already one-dimensional character as spokeswoman of the Neighborhood Asian Alliance (and apparently the only English-speaking one as well — thanks Hollywood). Her brother Thao, played by another first-time actor, Bee Vang, is only slightly less reviled because his character description can be summed up as shy, quiet and effeminate, the perfect target for bullies and Walt’s old-fashioned criticism of all things un-masculine that is borderline homophobic.
Sense a pattern? According to the Internet Movie Database’s trivia section, the Hmong actors (read: every Asian in the movie) were culled from Hmong communities, and all except for one had never acted before. Gold star to Clint for attempting authenticity, but a serious slap in the face for an audience expecting dedicated professionals in supporting roles after previous Clint-directed performances by Morgan Freeman, Tim Robbins, Sean Penn, Hilary Swank and Ken Watanabe. The on-screen interactions between Eastwood and his young protégés are haltingly unequal, like throwing your eighth-grade drama class in “Hamlet” with Kenneth Branagh in the title role. At times the pain will be immense, and you will never again question the system of studio checks and balances that prevent total creative control from landing in the hands of a chosen few.
The remaining parts vary from blessedly forgettable to laughably terrible. The wet-behind-the-ears priest, played overzealously by Christopher Carley, brings his untested scripture lessons against Walt’s wartime experience in Korea, and the green pastor’s words predictably fall flat in the face of the veteran’s jaded views of life and death. Other characters are perfectly angled to either reflect Walt’s ire of the downfall of modern times from the “good ‘ol days” or expose Walt’s human side, which the audience is shocked to find hidden under all that gruff, tough-guy exterior.
As mentioned above, “Gran Torino” centers around Walt as its grumpy old man with a heart of gold who happens to live alone next to a family of Hmong Asians who maybe, just maybe, will gradually warm his grumpy old heart in time to save Christmas from Hmong gangsters who, for some reason, prey upon both gangs of other ethnicities and their own people. Not only is the script riddled with unoriginal characters and plot arcs, but its dialogue is atrocious, and only made worse by weak performances. Walt levels his old war-time gun at the gangsters trying to drag off poor Thao and literally barks, “Get off my lawn.” The film never stretches its flimsy muscles to rise above this level of lazy, mediocre writing.
Ultimately, “Gran Torino” is a platform for Clint to be a grumpy old bastard and vindicated badass, even at age 78. Unfortunately, the rest of the film buckles under the weight of inexcusably poor acting and a cliché-ridden script. Despite Clint’s brave efforts to surge through the film’s weaker aspects on presence and performance alone, you’ll be laughing at the terribly predictable plot and uninspired (if not utterly amateur) acting alongside Clint. Those who can stomach the near two-hour run time will be rewarded with Clint’s final gift: his own voice crooning a song of the movie’s namesake. You have been warned.