Apart from the actual Dirty Harry, Clint Eastwood has already played a Dirty Harry of the Wild West, so it's no surprise to find him as Dirty Retiree, glowering in the suburbs, in “Gran Torino.”
Eastwood directs himself as Walt Kowalski, a Korean War vet and retired Ford auto plant worker whose very name is imbued with the guttural growl Walt emits whenever he sees something he doesn't care for: his granddaughter's (Dreama Walker) halter top at his wife's funeral; the priest's (Christopher Carley) jejune sermon on the meaning of death; or the new neighbors celebrating a birth on the same day, a family of Southeast Asian Hmong, whose kind are filling up Walt's working class (and the film implies formerly all-white) neighborhood.
In fairness, their elderly feel the same way, wondering aloud (in Hmong) why this old white man, sitting on his porch every afternoon defiantly swigging from cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon, hasn't moved away like all the others. If they have racial slurs to hurl they aren't translated for us, but Walt airs his in flagrant disregard of what's politically correct these days, or even polite. When a Hmong family dispute spills over onto his lawn, he's quick to stick a gun barrel in their noses, as if he were the last settler on the plains surrounded by unruly Indians.
“Gran Torino” is the second film directed by Eastwood to be released in 2008, following the Angelina Jolie vehicle “Changeling.” As a departure from that movie's austere look and reverent tone, “Torino” is both more simple and superior — Eastwood's least stilted and most satisfying project since 1994's “Unforgiven.” That film was a similar mix of the profane and the sentimental bound to endear some audiences and make others cringe, or even to endear and induce cringing within the same viewer.
Walt eventually befriends a Hmong girl (Ahney Her) and her brother, Thao (Bee Vang), who takes an interest in the car of the title and gets some coming-of-age advice from Walt. Bullying from a local gang engenders Walt's protection, changing the movie from a lighthearted survey of Walt's often humorously over-the-top racism to a story of friendship and sacrifice.
You may find yourself laughing with “Gran Torino” one minute and laughing at it the next. One problem is that screenwriter Nick Schenk doesn't seem to realize that humor and tenderness need distinct volumes. A related issue is Eastwood the performer, who never tries to modulate his cantankerousness, out-grimacing even Harry Callahan. That Eastwood the director lays on Christ imagery at the end along with a cornball coda he croons over himself doesn't help. Ending aside, “Gran Torino” offers more pleasure than frustration. It will look like a classic when compared to most of what else came out in 2008. (R) 116 min. HHHII S