Eastwood still gets better, even at 78

Posted: Friday, January 16, 2009

Clint Eastwood is 78. Think about that as you consider what the man has done of late. Since 2004, Eastwood has helmed "Million Dollar Baby," "Flags of Our Fathers," "Letters from Iwo Jima," "Changeling" and of course, "Gran Torino." When he gets bored he also stars himself. Oh, and pre-production has begun already on "The Human Factor," a movie about Nelson Mandela that will star Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon under Eastwood's direction.

Seventy-eight years old. The man is pretty much the exact opposite of an ego-boost.

His current work, "Gran Torino," expanded into wide release last weekend and promptly took over the top spot at the box office.

Kicking butt at the box office, however, is not the only way "Torino" is remarkable.

Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a retired Korean War veteran who cannot help feeling a bit grumpy when he looks at his life. Eastwood and writer Nick Schenk waste no time in showing us why Walt is a little gruff.

"Torino" opens with the funeral of Walt's wife. Walt, wearing an expression of general distaste, growls under his breath as he watches his grandchildren enter the church. One is wearing a bright green football jersey, another is dressed more scantily than even Britney Spears would deem appropriate, and another openly mocks the proceedings with his own twist on the sign of the cross.

Walt is content to go about his days talking to himself for the most part, occasionally mixing in his elderly retriever, Daisy. I can't blame him. I found myself wanting to punch one of them in the face every time his family barged into Walt's life. So imagine Walt's joy when a family of Hmong immigrants moves in next door, and their son Thao (Bee Vang) tries to steal Walt's Gran Torino.

Fond of words like "gook" and "chink," Walt unwittingly becomes a hero of sorts to his new neighbors when he intervenes during a dispute with a local gang. Thao is no gangbanger, something Walt is forced to realize as he slowly succumbs to the family's persistence. He agrees to let Thao work for him as penance for the attempted theft. The brilliance of "Gran Torino" stems from Walt and Thao's relationship. It starts out awkward and slowly progresses to one of tolerance before graduating to one of love. Once Walt accepts that he kind of likes this kid Thao, whom he calls "Toad," he begins to let down his walls. Thao's sister Sue (Ahney Her) is soon one of Walt's friends, too. Suddenly, through no fault of his own, Walt finds himself caring about the Hmong family next door.

It is the season of non-mainstream movies, though. That means there cannot be too much happy-go-lucky.

"Gran Torino" does not bother to explore the lives of the gang members too much. Nor should it. The gang that refuses to leave Thao and Sue's family alone is villainous in every sense of the word. Rarely do movies genuinely make me angry, but that is the emotion I felt when the gang returns Sue home one night battered and bloody. It was strange to be hoping Walt would morph into Dirty Harry and kill the whole lot of them.

Eastwood, at 78, is somehow still getting better at what he does. Walt is unquestionably tough, and yet alarmingly brittle. Eastwood is able to portray his racism in the most charming way possible before making Walt's movie-long transition believable. "Gran Torino" makes you, like Walt, genuinely care about its story and the characters in it.

Like I said, remarkable.

• Check out Carson's movie blog at www.juneaublogger.com/movies.



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