by Rick Grant
A / Rated R / 116 min
For this film, Clint Eastwood created his most memorable character, Walt Kowalski, a Korean War veteran who recently lost his wife. In his late 70s, Walt is the quintessential grumpy old man who hates all minorities equally. The demographics of his neighborhood have changed drastically since he and his wife moved in many years ago. A Vietnamese family moved in next door, and Mexicans are living throughout the neighborhood. Walt’s worst fears have come true. He is surrounded by immigrants.
Walt sounds like Archie Bunker with dozens of racist epitaphs for his Vietnamese neighbors-swamp people, eggrolls, slants, sloops, gooks, et al. He has a strained relationship with his two grown sons and grandchildren, who rarely talk to him. He and his precious dog Daisy hang out on the porch watching his neighborhood turn into desolation row.
When one of his neighbors, a repressed boy named Thao (Bee Vang) tries to steal his pride and joy, a fully restored Ford Gran Torino, Walt brandishes his M1 Garand rifle with a full clip at the terrified boy. Over time, Walt strikes up a relationship with the boy and tries to help him. This begins to change Walt into a more tolerant person. Walt saves Thao from an Asian gang that is harassing him. This endears him to his family who bring him unwanted gifts and food.
Deep in his ugly black heart, Walt is beginning to care about the strange Vietnamese family living next door. The eldest daughter, Sue Lor (Ahney Her) has taken a liking to the gruff old man, despite his barrage of insults. She sees through his veil of bitterness and decides he is a good man.
One day while driving his truck, he encounters Sue fighting off a gang of blacks. Walt intervenes with his trusty .45 caliber pistol. Then he takes her home. The family now sees Walt as a kindly protector, and showers him with more gifts. They volunteer Thao to work for Walt although he doesn’t want Thao as a handyman. So Walt hooks him up at a construction site.
Eastwood has created an offshoot of his classic characters. Viewers will see shades of Dirty Harry in Walt-an old man who has a highly defined sense of right and wrong. Screenwiters Nick Schenk and Dave Johannson imbued the story with a moral anchor, personified by the pivotal character Father Janovich (Christopher Carley). Although he’s young and inexperienced with dealing with the elderly, he manages to get through to Walt, after being insulted and thrown out of Walt’s house. Indeed, Father Janovich plays an important role in Walt’s epiphany of compassion.
The priest sees through Walt’s defenses into his pain at losing his wife and his unresolved PTSD from his Korean War horrors. He tells Father Janovich he still sees the faces of the men he killed in combat and he has nightmares about his war experiences. His reaching out to the Vietnamese family is a positive sign that he is beginning to heal.
Still, Walt can be explosively violent. When Thao is beaten up coming home from work, Walt goes to the gang’s home and beats one of the punks senseless. Father Janovich pleads with Walt to let the police handle this violent gang.
Then one night the Asian gang sprays the Vietnamese family’s house with an Uzi. No one is hurt, but Walt is ready to go to war. He realizes that unless the police catch the gang in the act, they’ll never leave the family alone. Walt’s health is not good. He’s coughing up blood and his diagnosis is grim. It’s like his whole life is leading up to this showdown the gang.
Director Eastwood deftly builds the momentum to the finale which is completely unexpected. Clearly, this is one of Eastwood’s best films and characterizations to date. Walt is a complex character who has lived life to the fullest while obeying the rules, and in his twilight years, is gaining wisdom and peace by helping others and not obsessing about things he can do nothing about.
by Rick Grant