23 February 2009
Having overclocked the mileage on 'that Gran Turismo movie' joke*, I was surprised at just how much of Gran Torino actually revolved around cars. Specifically, a 1970s Gran Torino belonging to the film's protagonist, Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood). The car encapsulates the film's central theme: rites of passage. Gran Torino's other protagonist, Thao (Bee Vang), is presented with a false rite of passage early in the film. To 'become a man', he must car-jack Walt's pride and joy at the behest of his cousin's gang. Walt - a recently widowed Korean War vet - is not about to give up his second love without a fight. Thao escapes Walt's shotgun, but he doesn't escape the consequences of his mischief - his mother forces him to repay his debt to Walt in manual labour - and he soon learns that true Manhood cannot be stolen; it must be earned. When his cousin's posse return to forcibly remove Thao from his family, Walt breaks up the front yard brawl with shotgun in tow, and is soon declared town saviour**. And so a Korean War vet and his asian neighbours forge a strange bond.
Gran Torino is rich in theme - discourses of racism, innocence and experience, life and death, peace and turmoil, permeate its story - but it is this idea of false initiation versus true Manhood that proves most compelling. Fatherless Thao finds in Walt a bonafide role model, while Walt finds in Thao the son he never had (and one last shot at redemption).
More surprising, though, is the comedic mileage that is derived from this odd couple. Clint Eastwood's intermittent grunts and groans are full of inflection, utterly unimpressed by everything. Ever the quintessential cowboy, Eastwood at a Hmong christening party makes for a hilarious juxtaposition of East and West. The rest of the laughs are sourced in Thao's awkward missteps on his journey to Manhood. One scene in particular springs to mind, where Walt forces Thao to re-enter the barber shop until he can talk like a man (and swear like a sailor).
But that's all I'm going to tell you other than to "go and see this movie." The idea of transplanting an aging Sheriff*** Coogan into an asian neighbourhood was pure genius (protip: it was probably Clint's). You'll laugh while you learn - you might even cry - and there's not much more you can ask of a film.
* It may amuse you to know that a subject search for 'Gran Torino' on IGN yields every Gran Turismo game.
** You can really tell he was Mayor of Carmel-by-the-Sea from 1986 to 1988.
*** I know, I know, Coogan was only Deputy Sheriff. But his name was Walt, too. So there.