With a title like Gran Torino, this film could be about anything. When Clint Eastwood is in the director's chair and driver's seat of this vehicle, the story will undeniably have a focus. This is Mr. Eastwood's 29th directorial effort and one of many performances where he directs himself, but his quantity never outweighs the quality. The script by Nick Schenk was originally developed in the 1990's when he discovered the people and culture of the Hmong and how their lives were devastated by the Vietnam War, the refugee camps that followed, and the difficult moves to other nations, like the US. I had the great serendipity of catching a documentary about several Hmong families' trips from Laos to Illinois recorded for the 1986 masterpiece, Blue Collar & Buddha. This reviewer can't be sure if Schenk or Eastwood took inspiration from this film, but Gran Torino certainly contains some great points in cultural relativism.
One of the things that many immigrants have to face, but are seldom warned about are gangs that feed on the vulnerabilities of those new to different societies. This may be one of the reasons why Eastwood took this project on due to its intensive analysis of figures from different cultures, our and their tensions that can exist between different ways of living, and an eventual unification toward a common goal to live happily and righteously. The young Hmong cast includes Bee Vang, Ahney Her, and Choua Kue who all do admirable jobs keeping up with their director. Eastwood himself has a lot of fun within the character of Walt Kowalski, a Korean War veteran, who takes it upon himself to keep his new neighbor's teenage boy away from the gangs while teaching him a lesson or two along the way. Kowalski keeps to himself, but knows how to stand up for someone when it counts. Kowalski hates indecision and cowardice in the face of danger, but most of the time prefers to keep out of the situation if he can help it. Most of all, Walt Kowalski does not have any reason to like you or me until you give him a reason to do so. The character is obviously an ode to many previous characters Eastwood has played over the years; notably The Man With No Name and Dirty Harry Callaghan. Unlike these two icons, Kowalski does not need to carry a shotgun, a Colt .45, or a .44 Magnum on his person at all times. His way of getting people's attention is to simply threaten them with his finger as if it were a gun.
The character of Walt Kowalski also recalls a time where men solved situations by duke-ing it out much to the surprise of a few hoodlums who attempt to teach Kowalski their own lesson. But it is obvious that this aging cowboy, in his own right, is the only one who should be giving lessons. Film buffs might find some parallels in Gran Torino to Don Siegel's The Shootist with John Wayne about an aging cowboy (literally) who plans one last climatic battle to tie up loose ends. Don Siegel directed Eastwood in five films himself, and I have a suspicion that Eastwood picked this project because of the many things Siegel might have found intriguing in it. One of these intriguing elements the film shows us involves details into the Hmong culture and how Kowalski eventually takes a more flexible attitude to it. Who says you can't teach an old dog (just like Kowalski's dog) new tricks? As for what the film teaches us, I know from my experience that it takes a good teacher to make a good student and certainly vice versa. No one should inherit a gift. They should always earn it.