Clint Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a retired auto worker in Detroit. He is a crotchety old man and a racist, the last white guy in a neighborhood that now has Hmong immigrants from Laos. Kowalski calls them slopes, zips and other epithets.
Minor plot spoilers follow, but I won’t go into the climax and resolution.
The logline of the plot: The teenage Hmong boy living next door to Eastwood is pressured to join a gang. Eastwood sees value in the kid and becomes his mentor.
In VERY broad terms, the story follows the Casablanca template. The hero has renounced values and has become a cynic. He hates the world. Then he finds a value worth fighting for. “I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t — damn it, I care!” It’s a powerful story that always works in the movies.
Aside from Eastwood, who plays Kowalski perfectly, there is an after school TV amateurishness to much of the acting and writing. The dialogue is wretched. At one point a Hmong girl lectures Kowalski about “our culture.” Gag.
I noticed a false note. Kowalski tells this joke in a bar to two other white guys: “A Mexican, a Jew and a colored guy walk into a bar. The bartender says, ‘Get the f**k out.'” Would Kowalski say “a colored guy”? Wouldn’t he use the N-word? Although he uses every other racial epithet, the movie didn’t have the stones to go all the way. Perhaps they feared the audience would dislike the central character. It was a mistake; if a character is a racist, make him a racist.
Kowalski’s transformation from mean to cuddly is a little too easy and unmotivated. A man who starts out telling the Hmong to stay off his yard has to be forced into interacting with them and getting to know them.
Aside from the amateurishness and multicultural pieties, the movie is pretty good. There is enough good stuff to make it a diverting entertainment for an evening, but it certainly is not great art. Kowalski is a Korean War veteran who still has his army rifle; he loves America and he has a garage full of tools. He is an interesting fellow to get to know. Kowalski and his Gran Torino symbolize an America now gone: a time when men and cars had muscle.