Drama: Eastwood undercuts legacy of ‘Dirty Harry’

2009-03-29 00:00

CLINT Eastwood gets away with it every time. He doesn’t act so that anyone notices; his performance is so weirdly ironic that he comes across as a self-referential cultural joke; his one-liners have their own register on the clunk-scale. And yet it feels like a treat every time.

Grouchy doesn’t begin to describe his character, Walt Kowalski, a relic from an era when Made in America was the gold standard of motoring value and Asians were “gooks” and “swamp-rats”.

If you’re sensitive about racist language, take a happy pill with you, because every sentence is laced with it. Some of it is mean, some of it falls in the category of banter, and ultimately, given the film’s message, it ceases to give offence.

So Walt is a racist, an old-school American who has passed his sell-by date and finds himself marooned in a neighbourhood once white but now mixed Asian, Mexican and African-American. The Gran Torino of the title is a 1972 Ford he keeps in pristine condition, a symbol of the world as it should be, without foreigners, death or decay.

But as much as he tries to stand apart from his neighbours, he gets dragged into a gangland feud involving the local Hmong community, flotsam from the Vietnam war seeking a future in the land of opportunity. Slowly, and implausibly, Walt, who is alienated from his own family, takes the neighbours’ son, Thao (Bee Vang), under his wing. He calls him “Toad” and “pussy” just to show he doesn’t really care, but of course he does.

The pace of the film is at times tediously slow, and that is perhaps the fault of the expectation that everything will erupt in a Dirty Harry climax.

There’s no question that Gran Torino is a giant nod to Eastwood’s iconic character, but the end, when it finally comes, makes a statement that undercuts that legacy and its era. The theme of reconciliation and self-sacrifice takes the place of vengeful self-righteousness that defines the vigilante genre, and of which Eastwood was one of its greatest exponents.

It’s best to define Eastwood as a force of nature. There’s nothing subtle or elegant or neat about him. But there’s a wisdom, and astuteness born of longevity, that carries him as an actor and a director, and allows one to forgive what is rough and awkward. A conclusion much like the film reaches.

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