Gran Torino

Gran Torino on Blu-ray

by Jim Bray

Gran Torino is, quite simply, the best new movie I have seen in ages. It's an extraordinary film that should have been rewarded with 2008's Best Picture Oscar - and Eastwood should've been awarded the one for Best Actor, too.

Eastwood plays Walter Kowalski, a Korean war vet who spent the years since then working in a Ford plant, raising a family, and watching as the world that he fought for disintegrate before his eyes. His middle class Detroit neighborhood has become a dump, immigrants have taken over and brought gang wars with them, his kids have grown up as self indulgent and self-absorbed baby boomers with whom he has little in common – and now, at the movie's opening, his wife has died leaving him alone and isolated in a world he doesn't really understand and definitely doesn't like.

Walt (don't call him Wally – don't even call him Walt, in fact, unless you're his friend) is solid and stolid. He's an anachronism in a hedonistic and politically correct age, a man clinging onto his values in spite of those around him who understand him as little as he understands them.

Some reviewers have called Walt a racist. Heck, even one of the cast members calls him that in the supplementary material. But he isn't really a racist. He grew up white in a white neighborhood, a “Polack” whose peers were “Dagos”and whatever other basically white immigrant stock there was around. Orientals are zipperheads and blacks are spooks not so much because he hates them but because they're like an alien species to him and, besides, that's how he and his peers talk – spook is no different than Dago or Polack. The only difference is that he's been hanging with Dagos and the like all his life and they fit within his comfort zone, whereas these newer groups that now encircle him have not.

The things closest to and most valued by Walt are his dog and his immaculate 1972 Ford Gran Torino, a car he worked on in his days on the assembly line. The car is symbolic of Walt, a strong symbol of a day gone by, a day many – including Walt – felt was better than today, with its lack of core values, is.

Then circumstances bring him into contact with his neighbors, a close-knit Hmong family originally from southeast Asia, where they had fought with the Americans in Vietnam before later being forced to escape after the Americans abandoned the region to its communist fate. To Walt, however, they might as well be multi-headed hydra, prattling to each other in a strange language and exhibiting decidedly un-American culture. Better to just leave them alone.

Ah, but life – and the movies – aren't like that and despite himself Walt finds himself befriending a young brother and sister Thao (Bee Vang), and Sue (Ahney Her), who are as American as he is while adding an extra cultural layer to their lives that comes from being Hmong. Sue's a scrappy and mouthy teen secure in her own skin, but Thao is much more mild mannered and susceptible to peer pressure which, in this case, comes from a relative who's also a gang member. Walt turns out to be the role model Thao needs, while Sue turns out to be the friend Walt needs.

This is a simplistic description and doesn't do the story justice, but I'd rather not spoil it for those who haven't yet had the experience of immersing themselves in this outstanding motion picture.  It's Eastwood at his best, both as a director and as an actor. His performance as Walt Kowalski could surely have won him the nod as Best Actor if his character had been more politically correct.

As a director, Eastwood is known for a sure hand on the production and a style that wastes not a shot. Combining his on and behind-camera skills with a supporting cast that is simply outstanding, especially the Hmong who thanks to their skills and  those of screenwriter Nick Schenk make us not only care for these “ugly Americans” but to learn more about them and their culture – and just like Walt does we learn that people are really the same everywhere, regardless of their background, culture or color.

Gran Torino touched my soul, made me laugh out loud, and brought tears to my eyes. It's a rare occurrence when a movie can do that and my hat's off to Mr. Eastwood, whose clout undoubtedly led to a politically incorrect movie such as this being made in today's Hollywood.

It’s also a good Blu-ray disc. The movie is presented in 1080p widescreen at an aspect ratio of 2.4:1. The picture quality is very clean, with excellent contrast and color and very good depth. The movie has a very real look, not like a glossy Hollywood production but more documentary-like, which not only works to make the movie seem more realistic but it also works to make the BD picture look more lifelike.  

The audio, presented in Dolby TrueHD 5.1 is also of the same flavor: it’s realistic and, though it’s front-centric for the most part, the fidelity is excellent. Sound pans across the front channels with dialog, passing vehicles, and characters, and there’s plenty of ambience that adds a realism to the soundtrack. Your subwoofer won’t get much of a workout, but this isn’t that kind of film.

Extras include an entertaining look at “The Eastwood Way” (in HD), a 20 minute look at the actor/director, his methods what attracted him to this particular project – his first acting gig in a few years – as well as a look at the Hmong and screen tests of Hmong cast members. It's interesting stuff.

You get a couple of other featurettes, too, more auto-related ones: Manning the Wheel, in which Eastwood and cast/crew members reminisce about their first cars and their dream cars. “Gran Torino: More than a Car” is a look at the annual Woodward Dream Cruise, a Detroit event in which thousands of people bring their pride and joy vehicles out for everyone to see and marvel at.

There's also a BD Live component and a second disc that contains a digital copy of the movie. Not a lot of extras, but an extraordinary movie nonetheless. Recommended highly.

Gran Torino, from Warner Home Entertainment
116 min. 1080p widescreen (2.4:1), Dolby TrueHD
written by Nick Schenk,
produced and directed by Clint Eastwood.

Jim Bray's columns are available from the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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