[Screen It]

(2008) (Clint Eastwood, Bee Vang) (R)

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Drama: Although he initially has nothing but racial disdain toward them, a gruff Korean War veteran ends up protecting and befriending the Hmong family next door from a gang that wants to recruit their teenage boy into their fold.
Walt Kowalski (CLINT EASTWOOD) is a Korean War veteran whose beloved wife has just died, leaving the gruff automotive retiree in an even more cantankerous mood than before. Hating what's become of his neighborhood -- what with him being one of the last white residents left there -- and not getting along with his own grown sons, Mitch (BRIAN HALEY) and Steve (BRIAN HOWE), or his multi-pierced teen granddaughter, Ashley (DREAMA WALKER), Walt would rather just sit on the porch with his faithful dog, drinking beer and grumbling about how things have gone downhill.

The local priest, young Father Janovich (CHRISTOPHER CARLEY), is concerned about him, and checks in regularly to fulfill his promise to Walt's wife, but the racist has no patience for him. That also holds true for the next-door neighbors, a Hmong family led by the Grandma (CHEE THAO) who equally dislikes Walt. That somewhat changes, however, at least for the younger generations in the house, when Walt saves teenage milquetoast Thao (BEE VANG) from a gang run by his cousin, Spider (DOUA MOUA), who wants to recruit the boy into their fold. And their initiation rite for him is to steal the old white man's most beloved possession, his 1972 Gran Torino.

That obviously doesn't sit well with Walt who puts an end to that, and when a later gang-related dispute spills over onto his lawn, that gets him and his rifle involved. The family feels indebted to him, with Thao's sister Sue (AHNEY HER) befriending Walt and giving him the lowdown on their people and culture. The latter includes Thao having to work off his indiscretion, and Walt reluctantly agrees to let the teen help around the house and yard. By doing so, however, his icy demeanor and racism begin to thaw as he gets to know Thao and his sister. Yet, with the gang still lurking about, Walt realizes he might have to take drastic actions to protect the teen and his family.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
While many a person, and especially those who've been subjected to it at one or more points in their lives, will state that there's nothing funny about racism, humor is occasionally associated with such hatred-based thoughts and mindsets. And that goes beyond bigots simply telling racist jokes to their equally narrow-minded friends.

What's interesting is that many people of the same ethnicity use what were once (and still are in many circles) demeaning epithets toward each other, often in a joking way, and some have adopted some such phrases (including the "n" word) for their own people, apparently oblivious to or not caring about the word's origins, history and such.

Of course, comedians were on the cutting edge of doing so, and while lazy ones casually throw around such words, the smartest and cleverest turn such verbal insults back on those who use them by pointing out the stupidity of such attitudes. Although many misinterpreted its intentions and laughed along with it despite not getting the joke that they were the ones being made fun of, the best was and probably still is "All in the Family," the long-running sitcom from back in the 1970s and early '80s.

The most interesting aspect of its central character, Archie Bunker, was that producer Norman Lear, the various directors and writers, and especially star Carroll O'Connor somehow managed to make him lovable despite his bigoted ways (one's understanding of the show's intent obviously having an impact on how much he came off that way).

Interestingly enough, in the same year that "All in the Family" debuted, another archetype of the older, angry white American male surfaced in movie theaters in the form of "Dirty Harry." Rather than putting down those different from him with insults, the title character took the law into his own hands in what many have deemed a fascist fantasy disguised as a cop-based action flick.

Both of those elements, along with purposeful or coincidental nods to Mr. "Get off my lawn" Wilson from the Dennis the Menace comic strips as well as some passing similarities to Joel Schumacher's "Falling Down" surface in "Gran Torino." It's a film being portrayed by the ads as an "I'm white and tired of how America's changing" thriller, but is really a sly commentary on racism as well as star Clint Eastwood's onscreen persona, particularly in regard to his signature role.

Of course, I could just be reading more into what might otherwise just be a misfire, but the purposeful overacting on Eastwood's part ("Watch him glower!" "Hear him growl!"), the fact that his character, like Bunker before him, unexpectedly turns into something of a lovable, if misinformed lug, and Eastwood croaking out the title song under the end credits certainly suggests there's more going on here than what initially meets the eye and ear.

Then again, this is the same guy who did "Pink Cadillac" and "The Rookie" (not to mention those orangutan flicks) and is known for shooting (his films, that is) quickly and not fretting about the small details, so there's no surprise that this film, that Eastwood also directs, is getting wildly divergent reviews and reactions from critics and regular viewers alike.

If it is a shrewd satire as I believe, it's one that works a bit better on paper than on film, although I'll admit the pic and its central character grew on me as the story unfolded, and there are some good moments in an otherwise fairly straightforward and predictable plot. Among them, naturally, is Eastwood doing his iconic bit (the loner who doesn't say a lot and never backs down, whether that's behind just a squinty glare or the barrel of a gun).

Alas, the other performances aren't as inspired or fun to watch. The various gang members (fronted by Doua Moua) aren't much more than stereotypes, and the two central Hmong performers (Bee Vang and Ahney Her) vary wildly in their performances, ranging from decent to outright amateurish (the latter mainly occurring during the moments necessitating dramatic intensity).

The dialogue -- penned by Nick Schenk -- along with the rest of the script isn't anything worth writing home about, especially when it's far too obvious. That said, I (along with others at our screening) couldn't help but laugh at the exaggerated volley of epithets that are so over the top they manage to be funny rather than offensive.

The softening of Eastwood's character certainly helps in such regards, while other moments (Walt exchanging verbal barbs with his white barber, and later his white construction foreman friend) are played as old buddies exchanging salty retorts (there's even a scene where the Korean War vet tutors his unlikely teenage charge about how to do just that).

In the end, I find myself torn about this film. While it's obviously one of the star/director's lesser efforts (no one will confuse this with "Mystic River" or "Unforgiven"), and there are problems bedeviling various aspects of it, I still found it fairly engaging and surprisingly entertaining, even while feeling twangs of guilt stemming from laughing about parts I know shouldn't be funny. And that's either "Gran Torino's" master stroke or an unintentional backfire. The film rates as a 5.5 out of 10.

Reviewed December 2, 2008 / Posted December 19, 2008

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