Clint Eastwood veers off course in comic "Torino"

Thu Dec 4, 2008 11:52pm EST
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By Kirk Honeycutt

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - So now we know what became of Dirty Harry.

In "Gran Torino," which opens December 12 via Warner Bros., Clint Eastwood plays a retired auto worker in Michigan who could literally stand in for his iconic character a quarter of a century later. Crotchety as hell and a gun never far from his side, Harry -- sorry, Walt Kowalski -- lives a sullen, solitary life in a deteriorating blue-collar neighborhood where nonwhite and immigrant faces constantly irritate him. Indeed everything from the rundown funk of the 'hood to his blase grown children and their punk kids irritates him. A scowl chiseled into his gruff, stony face, he spits foul-mouthed commentary and racial epithets from the side of his mouth about everyone he sees.

Eastwood fans might embrace his rare comedic turn, but those expecting something more in the vein of recent Eastwood incarnations as an actor ("Million Dollar Baby") or director ("Changeling," "Letters From Iwo Jima") may be in for a disappointment.

The movie itself, directed by Eastwood and written by Nick Schenk (from a story he wrote with Dave Johannson), is an unstable affair given to overemphasized points and telegraphed punches. It lacks the subtlety of Eastwood's recent efforts, but then again, the film must be seen in the mode of "Dirty Harry reunites with his 'Every Which Way but Loose' orangutan" -- only this time it's an aging dog named Daisy.

Seated on his immaculate front porch with a steady supply of beer, Walt stews in the bile of his own hatred of anything contemporary seasoned with bitter, soul-shattering memories of the Korean War. He acknowledges Hmong neighbors only with a sneer until the next-door kid tries to steal his beloved 1972 Gran Torino.

Walt prevents the theft and confronts the Hmong gangbangers who ordered the attempt. This turns him into something of a hero to the mother and older sister Sue (Anhey Her). There follows lowbrow comedy about gifts and food turning up on his porch until the food -- and beer -- win him over.

As face-saving penitence, the would-be thief named Thao (Bee Vang) -- Walt insists on calling him Toad -- is commanded by his mother to work off his debt to Mr. Kowalski. This predictably leads to a curt friendship between the two males separated by a generation, Walt's involvement in the immigrant community and ultimately his intercession on Thao's behalf with the gangbangers to tragic consequences.

That this mostly comic film turns tragic is a foregone conclusion as this mood change is signaled all along. (When a character spends an entire film coughing up blood, we don't imagine he'll be around at the end.) Yet Eastwood's direction cannot always smooth out the unevenness and forced situations in Schenk's script.   Continued...

<p>Clint Eastwood accepts the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 53rd annual Thalians gala in Beverly Hills, California November 2, 2008. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni</p>