Gran Torino opens with a shot of the protagonist (Clint Eastwood, who also directed) standing by his wife's coffin, looking more pissed than mournful. And why shouldn't he be? His doughy middle-aged sons use Japanese SUVs to tote around disrespectful grandchildren who wear belly-baring shirts to their grandmother's funeral, then text-message their way through the service. Kids these days… Know what else pisses him off? His Detroit neighborhood has gone downhill now that all those Hmong immigrants have moved in as his old auto-plant buddies moved out or died off. Which is to say nothing of the Latinos and the blacks. Don't get him started. And, yeah, he talks to himself and growls a lot between rounds of Pabst Blue Ribbon. But the old man fought in Korea. Why should he consider changing his ways now?
Eastwood plays a man from another era, and the film around him often feels similarly out of time. For what's reputed to be his final acting role, Eastwood has crafted an old-fashioned melodrama, but one in service to a story about changing times, which makes it a far more interesting film than the sum of its squints and snarls. After aimless teenage neighbor Bee Vang attempts to steal Eastwood's prized 1972 Gran Torino as part of a pressured gang initiation, Eastwood reluctantly becomes a neighborhood hero when he drives off the gangstas at gunpoint. Drawn into Vang's family, Eastwood befriends both the boy and his bright, spirited sister (Ahney Her), apparently without relaxing a bit of his bigotry.
For all the broadly drawn characters and well-worn story tropes at work—most prominently a kid teaching an old man to open his heart—Gran Torino never lets viewers relax. Eastwood's character seldom eases up spewing epithets that already sounded dated coming from Archie Bunker. Sometimes the film seems uncomfortably close to excusing his racism as a generational quirk, but it ultimately never lets Eastwood off the hook or tries to hide the ugliness of his thoughts, even as that ugliness starts to erode.
Eastwood directs with his usual relaxed pace and bursts of intensity, a style that's pleasing to watch—and which, also as usual, never fully compensates for any shortcomings of the script handed to him. This one, by Nick Schenk and Dave Johannson, comes filled with too-obvious moments, particularly the scenes with Eastwood and an inexperienced priest (Christopher Carley), or the long sequence in which Her explains Hmong culture with the patience and detail of a filmstrip. It also seems uncomfortably infatuated with the fantasy of a white man with a gun being able to solve any problem. And then, in the end, it isn't. As Eastwood heads toward a final showdown—framed with all the iconic weight such a moment has earned over the years—it starts telling a different sort of story, one about how times change, America changes with them, and not all those changes are for the worse, however they may look from the perspective of one man's porch.