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At the Movies: If I Had a Hammer: Gran Torino **1/2

Clint Eastwood made one good movie this year with Changeling, though it will go down as the less remembered of the two, probably because he doesn’t star in it. Gran Torino, his second film this year, seems to be the one the critics have universally embraced. Is it because he stars in the film as an elderly vigilante, the same sort of ass-kicker we’ve come to know and love over many decades? Or is it that they love Eastwood best as a director when Eastwood is also the star?

Gran Torino, despite the delight of watching an old timer hurl Archie Bunker-esque insults at everyone in the film, feels too choppy and rushed to adequately hold the ultimate tragedy it fills itself up with.

Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a widowed Korean vet living in an Asian ghetto, next door to an Hmong family. He hurls racial epithets at them and seems to revile the multi-ethnic neighborhood that has bloomed around him. His own family isn’t much better – entitled, spoiled, annoying children (he might have taken some of the blame for that, being that he raised them). Walt is a loner, with a dog, until he befriends the Hmong family.

He does this by taking the boy who lives next door under his wing. The boy is being courted by the local gangs who won’t leave him alone. In Walt’s mind, the boy has no chance of surviving and living a decent life unless an epic tragedy takes place. I could think of at least three other ways the kid could have flourished without said tragedy, but that would be a different movie, not in keeping with Eastwood’s recurring milieu of using guns to settle things.

The best scenes in the film are those between Eastwood and Thao (Bee Vang), the kid he helps shape into a good man. This is probably because the film means to point out that the Hmong have better family values than “Americans” and we should appreciate rather than reject them. It’s a good message, a fine message, but it renders the Hmong, in this case, a bit like helpless victims who need “big strong white man” to rescue them from “gang bangers in village.”

Still, it’s touching to see Eastwood take the boy under his wing and show him the ropes, especially when he helps the kid to buy a tool belt and then helps him get a construction job. Perhaps the real problem lies in the script by Nick Schenk, a first-time writer whose experience with the Hmong came from a job he once had and questions he asked them. Indeed, the history of the Hmong is the most interesting part of the story.

Still, it’s a stretch to imagine that all Hmong boys are in danger of going to jail. How long ago did Schenk have those conversations? Couldn’t it just be that times have changed? It didn’t seem real or believable that Thao would be that inept and in need of rescuing. I should imagine that would piss off an Hmong or two.

Either way, it doesn’t really matter as Eastwood has launched another classic into his admirable canon. He has become a mythic creature to many of us film-loving Americans, especially with the critics. Their giving a pass to what are such obvious flaws in this film is a head-scratcher, one that can only be explained away as hero worship, a reticence to see one of their reliable icons take a tumble.

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