Gran Torino’ is almost great

By John Fitzgerald, Staff Writer

Here comes the blasphemy8212;Clint Eastwood is a really good actor, but doesn’t have a lot of range.

“Gran Torino”8212;like its consummate director and star8212;is really good, but it doesn’t have much range either. Eastwood has given us so many good movies but the ones that have garnered the most critical praise seem very similar8212;almost too similar. What separates “Gran Torino” from “Unforgiven” and “Million Dollar Baby” is not Eastwood’s acting (which is unfortunately too consistent) but the screenplay8212;which is not nearly the same caliber as his other Oscar winners.

“Gran Torino” is Eastwood’s first onscreen role since the masterpiece “Million Dollar Baby,” which came out almost four years ago. Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a Korean War veteran who retired after 50 loyal years of working at a Ford car plant. Kowalski keeps his M-1 rifle close to his bed just in case something goes wrong, like if someone was to try to steal his 1972 Ford Gran Torino, for which the movie is named. Fortunately for the sake of the film’s plot, everyone wants the car, even his family.

If you can’t handle racial slurs, then this movie might not be one that I could wholeheartedly recommend, because “Gran Torino” is overflowing with them. The constant use of slurs quickly turns into an awkward yet comical approach to the old school style of Walt Kowalski. Interestingly though, Kowalski’s racism is not directed toward any one group. In fact, he manages to offend just about every ethnic and racial group out there. Where the screenplay begins to soften is when the nice neighbor kid gets caught messing around with Kowalski’s stuff. In an all-too-easy fashion, the disgruntled Kowalski somehow unbelievably finds it in his heart to not only forgive, but also befriend him and his family, whom he still gracelessly refers to as “slopes” and “gooks.” The audience knows well in advance that there is a lesson to be learned here and that with the help of Kowalski and his nagging young priest, we’re going to get the moral of the story whether we want it or not. Some of this teaching is effective and heartfelt, but most of it is by the numbers and obvious.

What’s really interesting is that many people are predicting an Oscar win for Eastwood’s performance in “Gran Torino.” While the performance is good, almost great8212;and rumored to be Eastwood’s last in front of the camera8212;without a screenplay to match, it’s terribly difficult to believe that Eastwood could trump Sean Penn as Harvey Milk or Mickey Rourke as Randy “The Ram” in “The Wrestler.” It could very well happen, but it would be unfortunate. Eastwood’s performance is very good, while Penn’s and Rourke’s are absolutely phenomenal.

“Gran Torino” only took 32 days to shoot, and we get it only a few months after Eastwood’s similarly mixed-up drama “Changeling.” “Changeling” has a good screenplay and fine acting, but was way too long. “Gran Torino” has fine acting and is a good length, but lacks heavily in the screenplay. Maybe Eastwood had too much on his directorial plate and had a tough time juggling such different projects, but still. Make no mistake though, his directorial style is unmistakable8212;it always has been8212;and “Gran Torino” is no exception. Eastwood has been working with the same crew for so long, we can see and feel a trust and confidence in his films. Long-time Eastwood cinematographer Tom Stern has helped him create a sorrowful film with a great ending and the poignant themes of God and war, love and acceptance and ultimately, life and death.

As much as I like this movie (which I really do), it could have been so much more. In what will likely be Eastwood’s last onscreen role, I wish it would have had great writing to match his great, albeit too often autopilot, performance. It’s really hard to complain though, because Eastwood’s angry and gritty autopilot archive is better than 90 percent of what we have in Hollywood these days.

Most people will give Eastwood a walk because he’s Eastwood. Let’s just hope that it doesn’t steal the thunder from Penn or Rourke.

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