Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) is a Silver Star medal decorated Korean war veteran. During his tour of duty in 1952 he killed thirteen men and boys. That war and what he did there has affected his outlook on life ever since. When we meet Walt his wife has just died and now he is on his own in a run-down neighbourhood that he has lived in for most of his adult life.
Walt is a retired engineer who worked on the Ford Motor Company assembly line - and he owns a mint condition 1972 Ford Gran Torino which he helped build there. Coughing up blood, hating the neighbourhood, hating his life, his self, hating his grown-up sons who he never knew how to relate to or encourage: he continues his life on his own - maintaining his property as the neighbourhood around him falls apart and becomes filled with immigrants.
Thao Vang Lor (Bee Vang) is HMong - an Asian boy who lives next door to Walt and who is pressured into joining his cousin's neighbourhood gang. They want to initiate him into the gang - and to do so he must steal Walt's Gran Torino. Walt catches Thao in the act and chases him off.
When the gang comes back for Thao (to re-initiate him), Thao's family tries to protect him and a scuffle breaks out that spills on to Walt's lawn. He appears, Korean army issue M1 Garand in his arms and he sees off the gang.
Thao's mum forces Thao to work for Walt as penance. The film charts the course of Walt's friendship with Thao's family, the gang's revenge and the eventual climax - where Walt seeks to make amends and gain retribution for the gang's excesses and for his past life.
All this sounds like high drama, fraught with danger and ultimately depressing: but it isn't. The film is infused with a dry observant humour and well crafted pathos generated by Eastwood's performance as Walt: his gruff voice, his wordless growls and amusing if politically incorrect outbursts. The film explores the relationships of a multi-cultural city - and as such it has to deal with racism in that culture: both the overt and the casual forms.
A scene that encapsulates this is when a white kid and Thao's sister, Sue Lor (Ahney Her), are walking down the road and are stopped by three black kids. The black kids start harassing Sue, full of sexual innuendo, thinly veiled threats and racism. The white kid tries to 'bro' the black kids which they take offence to. Sue starts mouthing off - giving as good as she gets, using her intellect to make them back up, but they grab her. Walt rides up in his truck and tells Sue to get in. Once she does Walt belittles the white kid, insults the black kids, and then gets in the van. As they drive away Sue and Walt trade racist insults.
During this whole scene no-one is spared the racism. It is stupid and macho and nonsensical, but it is also tense and charged, they are just one remark away from violence - no-one knows quite what will set it off. But there is also an impression during all of this posturing that this is normal in some way. They have seen guns before, they have had them pointed in their faces, and the racism and insults are expected: this is the streets - these are things you need to deal with. Of course, this is also a film, and a script which has distilled that feeling into one clever scene.
'Gran Torino' is a film that trades on Eastwood's previous work and his iconic characters of Dirty Harry and The Man with No Name - and it does so in a manipulative way. Whether this effect has been written with Eastwood in mind, or is a function of the fact that Eastwood is the director as well as the actor is unclear. What is clear is that there are scenes where you have seen Eastwood gun down all the bad guys - and there are moments where you, as the audience, are expecting Walt to do the same.
Somehow 'Gran Torino' manages to be charming, witty, funny, tense, racist, tragic and full of domesticity. Eastwood's direction and performance have lifted what could have been a nasty, terrible film into one that is not. The film manages to redeem itself in spite of Walt, or perhaps, along with Walt as he manages to redeem himself.