By STEVE PERSALL
Times Film Critic
Perhaps we expect too much from Clint Eastwood, the director, after a streak of films ranging from superior (Mystic River, Letters from Iwo Jima) to merely great (Million Dollar Baby, Flags of Our Fathers). Heavy themes, presented in neoclassic style by a storyteller nearing the end of his trail.
Expecting Gran Torino to measure up to those films is an honest mistake, made once before last summer by viewers who were surprised by Eastwood's Changeling, an artful mix of nothingness. Gran Torino fares much better with its pulpish filmmaking, geared to please viewers while doing their thinking for them.
Never has Eastwood casting himself centrally been so crucial to a film's success. He is the only accomplished actor spending more than a few minutes on screen, surrounded by neophytes and bland bit players, so top billing almost seems like an ego trip. Eastwood's performance is impressive by comparison.
His character, Korean War veteran Walt Kowalski, is a bigoted widower, one of the last white residents of a Detroit neighborhood that becomes more ethnic with each moving van. His sons would prefer Walt move to an assisted living facility; the local priest (Christopher Carley) would like him in church. Walt snarls at everyone, a grumpy, dirty old Harry ready to pop.
Yet we're confident that aggression will be aimed at the right people. An icon like Eastwood makes racial epithets and stubborn irrationality likable because we know Walt will eventually dive into the melting pot, with a measure of saintliness.
Nick Schenk's screenplay makes it happen too easily. Walt's new neighbors, the Lors, come from Laos, close enough to Korea to pull Walt's chain. He can't sip beer on his porch without glaring at the eldest Lor in her porch rocker, or grunting about the Asian gang taking an interest in her grandson, Thao (Bee Vang).
Walt's only comfort is his 1972 Gran Torino, polished and parked in the driveway during daylight, almost daring anyone to mess with it. That happens at night, when the muscle car is locked in the garage. Thao accepts an initiation dare from the gang and attempts to steal the Gran Torino. First he faces Walt's rifle, then his family's shame.
That sends Gran Torino on a path of dual redemption: for Thao, by working as Walt's menial laborer, and for the old man, who realizes that Asians are people, too. Well, most of them — there's still that gang prowling the 'hood, bullying Thao and his sister, Sue (Ahney Her). Walt confronts the punks, taunting them into a blood feud.
That's when Gran Torino becomes the sum of its pat, sentimental parts. Eastwood presents another slant on the antiviolence theme that marks his best movies. This time, however, the scenario is so dramatically over-baked that Walt's final duel is 10 slow paces to atonement. This is popcorn Eastwood, no more provocative than his bestseller adaptations or space cowboys.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs. tampabay.com/movies