Saturday, January 3, 2009

Gran Torino (2008, Clint Eastwood)

This is a false advertisement lawsuit waiting to happen.

Given the delicious trailer for Gran Torino, your honor, I was expecting a return to ass kicking form for Clint Eastwood. Not to say that his directorial skills have diminished in recent years, only that he hasn't made a film in which he, Clint Eastwood, busts skulls in his own inimitable manner.

I was teased - teased! - with the prospect of Walking Tall for seniors by this trailer. If not that, then at least a subtle, understated version of a late-period Death Wish sequel wherein an elderly bad dude like Charles Bronson unrealistically kicks the asses of young whippersnappers. A friend eagerly brought the trailer to my attention as a taste of the ol' Dirty Harry and we were both excited. Somehow, he walked out of the film satisfied, though our original expectations were undermined almost entirely.

My problem is I love trash too much. If the trailer of a film represents the product the studio most wanted, then for once I'm in agreement with the studio and at odds with the auteur.

Eastwood having turned respectable after Unforgiven, there wouldn't be trash on the level of even the Dirty Harry franchise days. The promised trade-off would be a meditation on a persona whose pre-1970 machismo could give unique power to the character of a racist bigot at odds with an ethnically changing neighborhood, which, oh boy, includes gangs of furrigner thugs. The trailer promises a bubbling cauldron of geriatric and violence which explodes in begrudging defense of his furrigner neighbors.

The characterization of the racial dynamics in this movie have as much authenticity and weight to them as Charles Bronson defending the old Jewish couple in the slums of Death Wish 3 from the whooping punks outside, without the guilty pleasure to follow of kicked asses.

Flags Of Our Fathers literally put me to sleep by moving the story at the pace of an elderly man. On one hand its a breath of fresh air in the age of incompetent music video style direction, but on the other hand I literally fell asleep. Torino sadly does the same - even if Clint can frame a shot elegantly, which he often does.

The one saving grace is the racism. Not that Eastwood is believable as a racist, or that his abrupt warming up to the Asian family is any more plausible. The family is so ridiculously idealized as perfectly naturalized citizens, what racist wouldn't love them? They were on the North Vietnamese side of the 'Nam, but seriously, is that going to matter to a Korean war vet for whom a gook is a gook is a gook? And yes, naturalized as they are, there's of course one inconsequential requisite scene of ethnic tradition for credibility.

If all racists can be won over by the good home cooking of non-white families, then holy moley, what are they waiting for?

I can't believe there's any danger of violence about to break out if the embittered xenophobe at the heart of things doesn't even hate his targets enough to lash out. That's why this movie fails as a thriller, were that it even wanted to be one. Clint only pulls out his finger as a gun at some hoods twice in the aforementioned trailer, yer honor...

No, the high-mindedness of Nick Schenk's screenplay boils down race relations to I'm-OK-you're-OK as long as your third generation daughter talks like a white sitcom goody goody. At least the gangs in Death Wish 3 felt like they could conceivably be dangerous. There's only one in Clint's whole neighborhood, for pete's sake, and when they're finally defeated it's virtually the end of all gang violence in that part of Michigan forever.

Where IS everybody? Couldn't they have hired some extras? Michigan has the third worst homelessness rate in the country, where are the bums? The insularity of it all turns the wooden dialogue and cliched characters from an after-school special into a damn school play.

Anyways, the racism. I say it's the one saving grace because unconvincing as it is, it's there. Schenk may well have had a glossary of antiquated racist terms he wanted to get through, since they're sprinkled so liberally, all the way 'till the end. Eastwood also calls people motherfuckers and pussies, which is funny, but not nearly as funny as walking into his Asian neighbor's home and calling a whole gathering of them "fish heads." That's some Archie Bunker class, right there. The white and affluent crowd I saw this film with laughed their pecker heads off, because we've never even heard such creative slurs in the post-PC multicultural utopia of today.

Oh, and the other saving grace: my peals of laughter at Eastwood singing for probably the first and last time since Paint Your Wagon. I don't recall the lyrics, but all the next day I found myself humming the basic melody and making up my own...

Well I'm no jerk
and I'm no mean-o
I just drive my
Gran Torino

One love, y'all

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