Modern cinema has seen numerous examples of the Badass - that iconic vision of confident, aggressive, ultra-cool masculinity.
Samuel L. Jackson has typified the idea in virtually all of his films, particularly "Jackie Brown" and "Pulp Fiction." Other actors to recently assume the persona have included Clive Owen in "Inside Man," "Sin City," "Shoot 'em Up," and "Children of Men." In a dramatic context Daniel Day-Lewis provided the historical Badass in "Gangs of New York" and "There Will Be Blood."
This image of The Man Not To Be Messed With was first clearly articulated in the late '60s and early '70s by the legendary Clint Eastwood. In Sergio Leone's "A Fistful of Dollars" and its sequels and then in the "Dirty Harry" series Eastwood brought to life two compelling men of action who would lay the groundwork for what it meant to be a Badass.
Now, in his new film "Gran Torino," Eastwood harkens back to the roles that made him a god of the screen and proves that age is no obstacle for the true Badass.
The film begins with a funeral. Walk Kowalski (Eastwood,) a retired auto-worker and Korean war veteran stands in the Catholic church with a perpetual scowl as his family and friends take their seats. The cold curmudgeon is generally disappointed and put off by his sons and his less than respectful grandchildren.
With his wife's death Walt leads a solitary existence, spending most of his time sitting on his porch drinking cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon. In addition to the disappointment of his family the moderately racist Walt is irritated that his neighborhood has been all but taken over by immigrants. A Hmong family has moved in next door and Walt doesn't like it.
Walt can't avoid his neighbors, though. One night when Hmong gangbanger Spider (Doua Moua) comes to collect his younger cousin Thao (Bee Vang) to initiate him into inner-city gang life the conflict spills onto Walt's property. As the young criminals try to pull the unwilling Thao into their car they stumble over to Walt's yard. The Korean War veteran emerges with his rifle and a new catch phrase: "Get off my lawn!"
The act causes Walt to be viewed as a hero to the Hmong community who start leaving gifts of food and flowers on his doorstep. Initially Walt resists the adulation. However, Thao's older sister Sue (Ahney Hey) reaches out to Walt, developing a friendship after he saves her from some neighborhood thugs. She invites him to a Hmong gathering and he develops a fondness for their food and culture of traditionalism and respect. Gradually Walt bonds with Thao who must make amends for having attempted to steal Walt's beloved Gran Torino car at the urging of the gang. In Thao Walt finds a young person with the respectfulness of his generation. A relationship develops and Walt starts to mentor Thao, setting him up with a construction job and teaching him in the ways of masculinity. This task is threatened by the rival influence of the neighborhood Hmong gang which seeks to draw Thao into its destructive orbit. The problem of how to confront them challenges Walt as he realizes that, "Thao and Sue are never going to find peace as long as that gang's around."
The film stumbles slightly. Some of the supporting characters' acting is a bit weak. Particularly Christopher Carley as Father Janovich, the main antagonist Spider, and Walt's adult children each tend to deliver their lines in an almost false fashion. The screenplay also has a few bumps. Yes, I suppose it's funny to hear Eastwood unselfconsciously drop racial slurs but the joke is a bit overused.
It's that humorous element that will likely surprise moviegoers the most about "Gran Torino." It seems odd to label the film a comedy but it generates almost as many laughs as anything Will Ferrell or Judd Apatow have released recently.
However the film also excites like an action movie. When Walt rescues Sue from a group of gangbangers the confrontation is exhilarating, one of 2008's most memorable sequences.
The film is finally a drama, though, in its exploration of the mentoring relationship between Thao and Walt - a connection that draws parallels to that of Frankie and Maggie in Eastwood's previous film "Million Dollar Baby." Like Frankie, Walt is a wounded man estranged from his family who finds redemption in mentoring a young person who needs his help to escape the life fate has dealt them. There's also a subtle spiritual component in "Gran Torino." Also like his character in "Million Dollar Baby" Walt is an uneasy Catholic frequently mocking the priest who seeks to redeem him. By the end of the film Walt will come to a spirituality on his own terms.
The primary reason to see the film, though, is to simply bask in the glory of Eastwood's newest, and perhaps final creation. (It's rumored that this is Eastwood's last acting role, though he still has several directing projects in the pipeline.) If Walt Kowalski is Eastwood's final Badass then so be it. "Gran Torino" is the triumphant end to an acting career for which such modern Badass actors as Jackson, Owen, and Day-Lewis should aspire.