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Tuesday, Jan. 13, 2009

Made in USA

Clint’s last stand?

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Walt Kowalski speaks in hoarse rasps and growls through lips clamped in a perpetual sneer. He glares through narrow, resentful eyes. Add the leathery skin of an Egyptian mummy and Walt (Clint Eastwood) resembles a cartoon supervillain more than the retired autoworker and widower of Gran Torino, living out his last days bitter over a world gone for good.

Walt angrily clings to his old house in rundown Detroit and his 1972 Gran Torino, symbolizing the lost America of trade union prosperity. His Polish neighbors have been supplanted by Hmong who remind him-painfully-of the "gooks" he killed in Korea. His children are mediocrities and his grandchildren are worse.

Eastwood pushes his terse persona into self-parody. Lurching from comedy to pathos, we don't know whether to laugh at or with Walt, to share his lonely pain or the horror he once beheld. When he grudgingly befriends the Hmong family next door, admiring their determination and sense of community, he is drawn into war with the Hmong gangbangers terrorizing the neighborhood. Walt's warrior instinct remains unbowed even as he emerges from the hell of his seclusion. He maintains a wounded dignity behind his scowling face despite the ethnic abuse he hurls at "spooks" and "slopes" in a torrent seldom heard since Archie Bunker retired.

Despite some unintended comedy in the starring role, Gran Torino is among Eastwood's best recent films as a director, packing copious information and characterization into a swift, economical stream of action leading to a surprising conclusion.