Gran Torino's minimal story is certainly a relevant and emotional one, but the fact that the production seemed to be rushed so it to be ready and able to contend within the so-called 'awards season' exposures its flaws too greatly to be able to ignore them (which, when the dust settled, failed to garner any Oscar noms despite several other highly regarded nods leading up to them). Maybe I'm being too cynical about it all, but it felt like Oscar bait. Still, it was not the major reason why it failed to deliver for me the way the director's more recent output, such as Million Dollar Baby or Mystic River, didn't for example. It may have it's roots firmly stemming from a more independent film mindset, but that doesn't make it better. But then maybe those films shouldn't be compared with this, such a more personal exercise for Eastwood.
The film's title comes from the beloved car Walt Kowalski (Eastwood) owns as well as having his hands literally in it's production "back '72” at the Ford factory where he worked for fifty years. The grizzled Korean War veteran is now retired and finds that his not so glamorous neighbourhood has been infiltrated with disrespectful gang youths and Asian (Hmong) families he has more than a little trouble accepting live next door. Walt is a straight shooter, and his prejudice attitude defines his character. Coupled with the estranged relationship he has with his two sons and the recent death of his long time wife, he is now a lonely, angry man. He smokes and drinks constantly despite coughing up blood regularly, uses terms such as gook, slopes, spooks and zipper head to the recipient's faces and pulls his rifle on anybody spending too much uninvited time on his lawn.
As the film unfolds, Walt slowly breaks down his walls and after intervening in a tussle involving gang members and his neighbours he finds himself befriending the very people that he had no time for. Confirming this, he and Thao, a young man from his neighbour's family, form a skeletal, but invaluable father/son bond. However, gang members persist to harass Thao and his family with violence and intimidation. The film falters the most here as the structure and dialogue used to frame the initial story comes off as unrealistic and clichéd too often. Perhaps more experienced actors or a more authentic script may have helped fix these flaws, but when Walt's savage, racist barbs are what's keeping the audience's attention - both intentionally and unintentionally funny; it becomes clear something is missing. It is just not convincing enough and the first half of the film clunks along before the more emotional driven second redeems the story as best it can.
In short, the character of Walt is a thinly veiled Harry Callahan or Gunny Highway living out his twilight years, which makes it perfect fodder for Eastwood. Fans of the gruff exterior, straight talkin' cynical bastard he is famous for will have plenty to enjoy here. Indeed, it is a tailor made, obviously very personal film to the director, amplified by his passionate performance. It almost seems to be a closing chapter in many ways for those particular much-loved characters of his in that sense too. If it starred anybody but Clint, it could have been a much different film. As it stands, parts of it almost seems like caricature or parody because of it. This is a shame as the drama wants to be and deserves to be heavy going, but by the time the credits roll with Eastwood himself mouthing an ode to the car at the centre of it all, Gran Torino only really feels mildly moving despite saving it's most poignant and emotional moments for the excellent final act.