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Dying Breed

Clint Eastwood examines angry old manhood in what might be his last film role.

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Walt Kowalski's wife has just died, his kids don't like him, and his grandkids are an embarrassment. Moving in next door are a bunch of foreigners. (They're Hmong, ethnic Asians, but I won't repeat what he calls them.) What he has left in life is his dog, his front porch, his cold beer, and his 1972 Gran Torino — a car he helped build when he was a Ford autoworker. He's also got a bloody cough, some demons from the Korean War still sticking to his guts, and a Catholic priest who won't stop pestering him about going to confession.

This is the setup for Gran Torino, and it looks like it's as sweet as life is going to get again for Walt (Clint Eastwood, who also directed). When the neighbors get into some trouble from a local Hmong gang, Walt has to step in, initially just to keep the kids off his lawn. He's a bitter man, furious at how weak and weird the world has become. (Note to Hollywood producers: If you have to make another Hulk movie, cast Eastwood.)

This is Eastwood's best film since Mystic River. Gran Torino feels like quality minor Eastwood the same way 1993's A Perfect World did. But both films are sneaky good, and they're both better than technical-driven prestige pics such as Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima and (far) better than melodramatic claptrap with shades of brilliance such as Million Dollar Baby.

Eastwood has reigned as the most masculine American figure since John Wayne rode off into the sunset in 1979. Especially coming from him, Gran Torino, a film about what it means to be a man, is compelling stuff. The lovely middle of the film settles down into a father-son conversation between Walt and the bashful, emasculated kid next door, Thao (Bee Vang). You see, Walt is Dirty Harry with a heart of gold.

Gran Torino does for racism what the TV show Mad Men does for sexism — almost makes it an art form. Sometimes, you can only guffaw at the outrageousness of it. Walt speaks in an unending stream of racial invective, punctuated only by growls that give the subwoofers some exercise. At least Walt is an equal opportunity offender, laying into his friends just as assiduously. And such is the frequency that, by the end, you can tell when Walt means a word to be rude and when he means the same word to be a term of endearment.

The last act is a little tidy and can't quite live up to where it began, but the film survives the ordeal. Gran Torino is ultimately a fitting later-life entry in the Eastwood canon, worthy of the myth and even expanding it a little. Eastwood has hinted that it might be his last screen role. If so, it's note perfect. But personally, I don't think he's ready yet for the pasture.

Gran Torino

Opening Friday, January 9th

Multiple locations

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