He steps out of the truck. He’s just a little old man, must be what, eighty? And after all, there are three of you, strapping teenage boys, king of this corner in this run-down town, and if you want to have a little fun scaring this Hmong girl, who’s going to stop you, him?
But then you notice: this guy’s maybe not so little. In fact, he’s rangy, skin like coarse-grained sandpaper, sinewy muscles drawn tight as a leather belt, with tiny black eyes that have SEEN things. Maybe a war. Which would that have been, WWII? And the he takes his hand out of his jacket pocket, folds the hand into the shape of a gun, points it right between your eyes, and says:
“Ever have one of those days when you run into somebody you just shouldn’t have messed with?” He does not say “messed” with.
Can the scene be believed? Probably not. But now factor in that the character – Walt Kowalski – is played by the actor, the director, the legend Clint Eastwood, with all of the history we have with him in each of those roles. And we accept that Walt is so nasty he can scare off a pack of wolves. (Doesn’t hurt that he really does have a gun in that jacket.)
Walt is a retired Detroit auto worker, a new widower, who is working overtime to completely alienate his selfish and suffocating children. If ever a man seemed well suited to end his days alone, it’s Walt, who sits on his porch like a mean dog tethered there.
The neighborhood has gone to seed, in Walt’s virulent, racist opinion. That is: it’s overrun by Hmong, or “slants,” “gooks,” etc., as he calls them (the war he fought was in Korea; Hmong are from Vietnam). It’s certainly true that his neighbors don’t seem to care about property values (or can’t afford to care). While Walt’s house has a tiny patch of lawn as trim as Hitler’s moustache, the Hmong house next door has a peeling façade, rotting timbers, and a snake’s haven of tall grasses.
There are two fateful events. First, Thao (Bee Vang, great), the teenage neighbor boy, a bright kid with no prospect for a job, browbeaten by the women in his family, finally succumbs to the entreaties of the local Hmong gang. For his initiation rite, he must steal Walt’s vintage 1972 Gran Torino (that Walt himself built right on the line). Walt catches the boy red handed, and very nearly blows his head off with a shotgun.
That’s it for Thao’s gangland forays. But a few days later, the gang turns up like a bad penny, and is insistent that Thao join up anyway. That Walt scares off the gang merely because the fight spilled onto his lawn (or so he claims) is disregarded. Instead, Walt becomes the neighborhood saint. The irony of this, for a man who wants nothing more than to be left alone, is not lost on him. But the food they keep leaving on his doorstep sure tastes good.
If you’ve seen a lot of Eastwood movies, you can predict a lot of what comes next (though with more time for sentimental multi-centralism, and less for violence, than you’d expect). But predictability is not necessarily a knock when the craftsmanship is this fine.
And Eastwood has certainly crafted exactly the movie he wanted. After all, if you’re some suit at a studio, and you and your two toadies want him to change a scene, and he says, though not in these exact words: “Ever have one of those days when you run into somebody you just shouldn’t have messed with?” – who’s gonna mess with him, YOU?
If Eastwood’s new film (his second in less than a year) is not the masterpiece of his earlier “Million Dollar Baby,” the thrill is still there. He’s taking that vintage chassis out for one more spin around the block. Not the Gran Torino. Himself.