Clint Eastwood turns his screen legend on its head in the poetic and powerful Gran Torino.
It doesn't quite have the same ring as "Go ahead, make my day!" but Clint Eastwood's new catchphrase, "Get off my lawn!", is just as significant. For it's the knockout audience-pleasing line, uttered twice by the 78-year-old screen legend from behind the barrel of a loaded rifle, in the moody character piece Gran Torino. As such it represents the latest, and perhaps last, adventure of Eastwood's urban tough-guy persona, one that began 28 years ago with Dirty Harry.
This time, however, it's all change. Eastwood is older, at times even frail. He wears his belt-line high above his waist. He walks in careful steps. He still grimaces the same way, still squints, and can still spit a mouthful of chalky sputum across his beloved lawn, in a fey echo of the Josey Wales he once was so long ago. Today, however, he is Walt Kowalski, a Korean War veteran and a racist misanthrope whose life is turned on its head when a family of Hmong immigrants (or "swamp rats" as he first describes them) move into the house next door, and ultimately tip the cultural balance of his ethnically diverse Michigan neighbourhood firmly away from him and his proud true blue American past.
Walt at first isn't happy about this. He spends a lot of time brooding, sneering at his neighbours and telling racist jokes with his buddies. But when a fight breaks out on the aforementioned lawn, between his new neighbours and the Hmong gang members who are terrorising their sweet young son Thao (Bee Vang), it's too much for Walt. The old reflexes are back, the Eastwood that we know and love springs into action and, locked and loaded, he faces down the baddies with typical quote-worthy élan: "We used to stack guys like you five feet high in Korea, use you for sand bags!"
Naturally, Walt becomes a neighbourhood hero, a guardian of sorts for the grateful Hmong. He even takes the teenage Thao under his wing, and teaches him the milestones of manhood. In one pleasingly throwaway scene, Walt brings Thao to his barbershop and demonstrates the art of masculine banter, complete with expletive-laden epithets. Naturally, the troublemakers don't retreat forever, and the movie expertly parallel's Walt's gradual softening and his deepening admiration for his neighbours with the growing sense that a violent face-off finale is inevitable and will ultimately define Walt for who and what he was.
This is, of course, not just about Walt. The real kick from Gran Torino is the way it toys with, twists and essentially inverts Eastwood's stony screen legend. Ever since his revisionist 1992 Oscar winner Unforgiven, Eastwood has seemed increasingly uncomfortable with his legacy as an unthinking bigot. His epic Second World War double-bill - Flags of our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima - sucked the heroism completely out of war. His Million Dollar Baby was, shockingly, a woman's boxing picture that advocated euthanasia. While his more recent movie, Changeling, depicted a lone woman's fight against the very institution, the police department, that once spawned his own heroes.
Gran Torino, directed by Eastwood too, is in this tradition. It sets Eastwood up as a familiar crowd-pleasing version of himself - he even gets to terrify two street punks with another trailer-friendly admonition: "Ever notice how you come across someone every once in a while you shouldn't have messed with? Well, that's me!" And yet, bit by bit, scene by scene, the movie, and its actor-director, delight in taking apart this same legend. Thus, the version of 1950s America that he clings to is shown to be worthless, as is his tight-lipped stoicism. The real test, though, is in the closing pay-off. For too often, even in Unforgiven, Eastwood has been happy to engage with revisionism for 90 minutes but then, in the last act, revert to an old-fashioned trigger-happy finale. In Gran Torino, however, Eastwood is exemplary in both purpose and execution. He ends the movie with a mildly twisty climax, confounding expectations (especially those of his diehard fans) and producing something far more poetic and dignified - and an ending that could be read as an apologia for his entire action-packed oeuvre.
Of course, it leaves little room for another Dirty Harry-esque adventure. But perhaps this is just as well. The actor, nearly 80, has hinted that this might be his last screen role. And if so, as a thoughtful meditation on how and why he once made his day, it will never be bettered.