(Warner Brothers) Clint Eastwood, Christopher Carley, Bee Vang, Ahney Her, John Carroll Lynch, Brian Haley, Geraldine Hughes, Dreama Walker, Brooke Chia Thao, Chee Thao. Directed by Clint Eastwood
Change is a difficult proposition even for the most flexible of souls. As we get older, that flexibility declines and we eventually become stiffer, harder to move. Change for the old is a rare event indeed.
Walt Kowalski (Eastwood) is burying his wife. The church in suburban Detroit is filled with mourners, including Walt’s son Mitch (Haley) and his wife Karen (Hughes), who arrive fashionably late, which gets a grimace from the old man, and with children casually attired, which gets a growl. The fact that the priest, Father Janovich (Carley) is barely out of the seminary and is so wet behind the ears he constantly drips on the carpet adds to Walt’s barely disguised disgust.
Kowalski has lived long enough to see his neighborhood change out from under him. Gone are the working class folks who mainly toiled as Walt did at the Ford plant or some other automaker around the Detroit area, and in their place are Asians, mostly of the Hmong people, a hill people from Cambodia and Laos. Walt doesn’t understand who they are or why they’re there; he figures southern, warmer climates would be more their style than the cold, brutal Michigan winters.
Next door as the funeral reception concludes is a ceremony that is meant to banish the evil spirits from a newborn baby, not unlike a christening. Among the extended family living there are Thao (Vang), a shiftless young teenager who has learned to keep his head down and seems fairly bullied by the women in his family, and Sue (Her), his big sister, chief bullier and the most Americanized of the family.
Walt, who served in Korea, commonly refers to the Hmongs as gooks; while he never uses the “N” word (making him, I suppose, a nice racist), he throws out quite a few slurs in that direction as well. It is only when he sees Sue getting harassed by a trio of African-Americans that he feels moved to take action. We realize that Walt is a tough old cookie who has a healthy heaping of crazy in his recipe too.
Grateful for the assistance, she sees Walt out on his porch drinking beer alone on his birthday and he’s all out of beer. She insists that he come over to their home for barbecue and beer. Walt is on his best behavior, so he isn’t growling much (although the grandmother (Chee Thao) doesn’t trust him as far as she can spit him) but he still is like a fish out of water. He calls Sue “Dragon Lady,” mostly out of affection and notices the dejected Thao sitting on the washing machine in the basement rec room. Thao has his eye on a pretty Hmong girl but, as Walt is only too happy to point out (he calls Thao “Toad” which seems to amuse him) the girl actually is interested in him, God knows why.
Thao has been getting hassled by the local Hmong gang-bangers to join their crew and when he more or less accepts, his initiation is to steal a car and not just any car – Walt’s pride and joy, a 1972 Gran Torino that Walt himself helped build on the assembly line back in the day. Of course, the inexperienced Thao bungles it and gets caught by Walt.
Sue and her family are mortified and by way of apology they order Thao to assist Walt with any odd jobs he so desires for a week. Walt is reluctant at first but as the week goes by he learns to respect the boy’s work ethic and his eagerness to learn new skills. A genuine bond develops between them, and Walt arranges for Thao to get work at a construction site, loaning him tools and helping him buy the necessaries for construction work. He also takes him to his barber (Lynch) to learn how to speak like an American man, which only serves to confuse the boy further.
The gang, however, hasn’t gone far away and they’re none too pleased that Thao is not joining. Things begin to escalate into downright ugliness that is going to lead to a confrontation that is sure to involve bloodshed.
Eastwood has stated that this will be his last appearance onscreen as an actor, and as he nears 80, it’s understandable that he would go that route. If this is to be his final onscreen performance, it isn’t a bad one. It’s inevitable that Walt will be compared to Eastwood’s best-known role as Dirty Harry but that really is an injustice. The part here is multi-layered and Walt is basically a man who wants to be left alone to sip Pabst Blue Ribbon on his porch with his faithful dog Daisy at his side, but events conspire against him. Still, he allows himself a Dirty Harry-esque line in “Get off of my lawn,” growled early on in the picture.
Other than Lynch who is best known as Drew Carey’s brother on his television show but has blossomed into a marvelous character actor, the actors here are mainly unknown. Many are from the Hmong community in the Midwest and had little or no prior acting experience. Reportedly Eastwood encouraged them to ad-lib their lines, and that was a wise choice; most of the Hmong characters seem very authentic and unforced as opposed to other non-professional actors I’ve seen in other films. Her as Sue is the best of the bunch, brash and bold but soft and feminine at the same time. When her vulnerability is exposed, it’s a powerful, powerful scene.
I also want to make note of the theme song, which is sung once by Eastwood himself (and was co-composed by his son Kyle) and once by Jamie Cullum, who sounds uncannily like Billy Joel. The song is wistful and earthy and sounds like the kind of tune you’d hear in a corner beer joint jukebox near closing time. I thought it fit the tone of the film perfectly.
I’m not too familiar with the Hmong culture, but the movie gives you glimpses into it, which I found fascinating. Given the amount of Hmong participation in the film, I’d hope that it’s portrayed fairly accurately. I also liked the usage of the suburban Detroit locations. You get a real sense of the rundown, Midwestern neighborhood and that infuses the movie throughout.
This won’t rank as one of Eastwood’s best, either as an actor or as a director, but it’s a strong film nonetheless. I was genuinely affected in places, and I found myself liking Walt Kowalski despite all his failings which means that Eastwood the actor did his job well. It’s the kind of bittersweet movie that bears late-night viewing perfectly; it’s also the kind of movie that stays with you long after the closing credits have finished rolling.
WHY RENT THIS: Clint Eastwood is a living legend and this may well be his last movie. The theme song is amazing, even with Eastwood singing it in a gravelly voice over the end credits. Great sense of location, interesting insights into the Hmong community and some genuinely affecting moments.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some may find Walt’s general attitude and language offensive. Not as emotionally powerful as Eastwood’s best work.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of violence but a whole lot of cussin’, and quite a lot of racial slurs. Recommended for mature teens and older.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Writers Nick Schenck and Dave Johannson wrote the script while working in a steel mill; they’d jot down ideas on scraps of paper during lunch breaks. They were inspired by members of the Hmong community who worked nearby.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are a couple of featurettes on the relationship between men and their cars, and on the Blu-Ray there’s a 20 minute featurette on the directing career of Clint Eastwood.
FINAL RATING: 8/10
TOMORROW: Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun Li