Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) is a retired Korean War veteran who has recently lost his wife, and at the funeral he stands by the coffin dismayed at the sorry state of his family for whom he has no respect, fully aware that they barely tolerate him and his irascible behaviour. When the Priest (Christopher Carley) begins the service he is even less impressed, as the man is at least fifty years younger than he is and Walt feels he knows nothing of the life and death he preaches about. Back at his house, the family and friends dutifully turn up, but really he cannot wait to get rid of them - and to make matters worse, his Asian neighbours are having a celebration...
There are not many film stars who can command one of their career's biggest hits while pushing eighty, but that was exactly what Clint Eastwood did with this deliberately paced yet slow building drama, as if it had been specifically tailored to his talents with machine-like precision. Yet it played anything but mechanically, bringing out the humanity in a character who has to all intents and purposes given up on the rest of us. Eastwood still had that star quality, and although he might have generously allowed his cast and crew to share credit, there was nobody who wanted to see this who wished for anything more than two hours in the company of a superstar.
In a way, the script by Nick Schenk, who co-wrote the story with Dave Johanson, is very well aware of who it has been written for, and the glories of Walt's Korean War record could very well stand in for Clint's successes with the movie industry and all those hardnosed personalities he had brought to life. Yet such is his skill that after a while you forget you're watching the star and grow lost in the character, an embittered old racist who laments the path that modern America has taken, firing off offensive language at just about everyone, from Asians to blacks to whites. Walt is mad at the world but cannot do anything about his wrath, left impotent in the face of his antagonists.
That is until he has a chance encounter with his Hmong next door neighbours who are having trouble with a local gang who want the teenage son, Thao (Bee Vang), to join with them. Thao agrees to steal Walt's prized possession, a 1972 Gran Torino car in pristine condition, but he is disturbed by the old man and fails. This leads the gang to arrive at his house for more persuasion, but Walt sees them off at the end of his rifle, making him a hero among the decent Hmong residents of the area and a resulting in a truce between him and Thao, who he ends up taking under his wing as the son he never had, well, the son he always wanted after his actual sons let him down. In essence, this is The Karate Kid with a reversal of races, so Eastwood is the Mr Miyagi and Vang is Ralph Macchio.
Except it does not quite turn out the way you might expect, and there's a late in the final act surprise for those anticipating a Death Wish-style vigilante thriller; certainly all of Eastwood's action movies would lead one to view Gran Torino as a samey addition to those under the guise of what would in other hands have been an indie drama. Just as Walt begins the film believing that decency in society has been replaced with hatred and selfishness, we see along with him that this is not the case, and although Thao is victimised by the thugs for trying to stick to the straight and narrow and do the right thing, he is representative of an unfashionable but valuable element in the community. Echoes of other hits from this leading man are there, particularly in its Christ-like resonances, but there's a genuine tribute to him and his revitialised character that serves them both without corny sentimentality. At this late stage, Eastwood had produced one of his best works. Music by Kyle Eastwood and Michael Stevens.
Becoming a superstar in the late 1960s gave Clint Eastwood the freedom to direct in the seventies. Thriller Play Misty for Me was a success, and following films such as High Plains Drifter and The Outlaw Josey Wales showed a real talent behind the camera as well as in front of it. He won an Oscar for his downbeat Western Unforgiven, which showed his tendency to subvert his tough guy status in intriguing ways. Another Oscar was awarded for boxing drama Million Dollar Baby, which he also starred in.
Also a big jazz fan, as is reflected in his choice of directing the Charlie Parker biopic Bird. Other films as director include the romantic Breezy, The Gauntlet, good natured comedy Bronco Billy, Honkytonk Man, White Hunter Black Heart, The Bridges of Madison County, OAPs-in-space adventure Space Cowboys, acclaimed murder drama Mystic River, complementary war dramas Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima and harrowing true life drama Changeling. Many considered his Gran Torino, which he promised would be his last starring role (it wasn't), one of the finest of his career and he continued to direct with such biopics as Jersey Boys and American Sniper to his name.