Thursday, January 15, 2009

Gran Torino: Grumpy Old Men With Guns

Many have already noted that Clint Eastwood, at 78, dominates the screen in every way in his new movie Gran Torino. Some of this has gone out as criticism of the younger actors, but I think that's misplaced. They are callow and naive, and whether it's bad acting or not, it works perfectly in the context of the movie.

And this is legendary stuff, with Eastwood no less a mysterious, alien figure than an Ent from Lord of the Rings. This is kind of rare: Power Fantasies are common enough, but how often do we see a senior citizen power fantasy? (2-3 times a decade, max.)

It's also really, really corny. Has anyone mentioned that yet?

Get over, for a minute, that Eastwood's playing the "gunslinger with a past", only instead of blowing into town, the town has blown up around him. He's killed people (55 years ago) and he's a lousy father and his wife--the one person in the world who understood and loved him--has just died.

Beyond all that, he's still the archetypal "crusty but benign" oldster who takes the youngster under his wing and teaches him about the world.

Corny as hell. But it works, even down to gravel-voiced Eastwood singing the first verses of the closing song.

That's right. You heard me: Singing.

And I think it works because, like Kwai Chang Caine and the Incredible Hulk, Walt Kowalski hates violence--but he's not afraid of it. Well, "hate" is a strong word. Let's just say he doesn't like killing people. Roughing them up can be part of a healthy parenting philosophy.

It also works because there's a disturbing truth there: Urban centers are an awful lot like Old West towns where gangs have the population in fear because nobody is willing to fight to defend themselves--well, nobody not in a gang, anyway.

Mostly it works because Eastwood glowers, growls and snarls his way through, while wearing his pants too high and having a strange little old-man paunch and wobbling when he walks--except when it's time to hold the rifle steady.

There's also some good story building there. It's hard to imagine my pool-sharping, sharp-dressing, beer-selling (and swilling), WWII-fighting grandfather having much in common with me or my dad.

So we understand when Kowalski doesn't "get" his sons and views them as disappointments. They are hugely spoiled, by his standards, and his grand-kids even worse. When he has a revelation that he shares more in common with the Hmong than his own descendents, it works.

And it works without trying to cover up Kowalski's sins--his failure to reach his sons being his worst.

So, yeah. It works. Well. And it's a successful vehicle for a 78-year-old 4-decade strong movie star. The Boy heartily approved.

Now, I make a point of avoiding message movies. Milk, for example, is not on my list. But Eastwood is definitely working at more than one level; does he make message movies?

I tend to say no. For example, I think it's a real mistake to look at Million Dollar Baby as being pro-euthanasia. The situation addressed in that film was unique. It would make no sense to apply it generally.

This situation addresses something more generic, I think: That we've lost an important set of values, that we're spoiled, and that immigrants represent a lot of those old values--but not all the truly great American ones.

But, you know, that's all very cliché--and very corny--stuff. It's something you could see John Wayne doing. Hell, it's something Wayne probably did in one of his later movies.

What's nice, though, is that it still works. Is anyone in Hollywood paying attention?


  1. Is anyone in Hollywood paying attention?

    They must hear the ka-ching at least.
    (hey, that almost sounded bigoted)

  2. You'd think so. But they still don't do Biblical movies, even after Passion.

    I think that's because it's just that alien a viewpoint.

    Which gives you your answer as to whether GT will inspire any knockoffs.

  3. You know they've forgotten that they're in business to make money when we still don't have any 80's style action movies about killing terrorists.

  4. Well, heh, there is The Dark Knight.

  5. What blake is describing is at the heart of all the old "platoon" movies of WWII where the immigrants all come to fight the krauts or the japs.

  6. This is true, TY.

    GT is a very old-fashioned movie.

  7. Where is the Rambo-type film about going into the Middle East to kill terrorists? I tell you, someone would make a fortune with a film like that.

  8. Stallone's too old, or he'd be doing it, I'm sure.

    Someone will clue in eventually.


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