‘Torino’ has all of best Eastwood elements

Posted Jan. 11, 2009, at 8:19 p.m.

In theaters

GRAN TORINO, directed by Clint Eastwood, written by Nick Schenk, 114 minutes, rated R.

Would somebody please hire Clint Eastwood to stare down the recession, narrow his eyes at it and lift a loaded shotgun at it?

He can shoot if he wants, but if his performance in his new movie, “Gran Torino,” is any indication, he won’t need to. As this film and a good deal of the actor’s career prove, he could scare the hell out of the shrinking economy with a mere sneer.

Decked out in full Dirty Harry mode is Eastwood, who directs himself in the role of Walt Kowalski, a proud American and die-hard racist who worked his entire life at the Ford Motor Co. and who lives in a part of Detroit that increasingly is turning into a community of Asians.

Walt is having none of that. In fact, he’s so aggressive about his dislike of the Asian community he’s not above walking over to his neighbor’s lawn and spitting on it while one of the home’s inhabitants, an elderly Asian woman, looks on in disgust.

Not that she’s having any of him. Since a good deal of the movie is charged with an unexpected sense of humor, the woman spits back, Walt hurls a few racial slurs at her and on he goes about his day, which usually involves spending time on his porch with his dog, Daisy, while drinking beer in the wake of his wife’s recent death.

From his perch on his porch, Walt observes the world around him with contempt. Nobody can live up to his standards — certainly not his two sons, who disappoint him to no end — and so his sour face and ugly disposition are a mainstay, with the lot of it turning into a full-boiled rage when one of his neighbor’s kids, a sensitive teenager named Thao (Bee Vang), first tries to steal his vintage 1972 Gran Torino, and then later when Thao is pulled out of his home by the gang of Asians who put him up to the job.

Their idea is to turn Thao into a man by forcing him to join their gang. Since their struggle crosses the line onto Walt’s lawn, out he comes with his shotgun in hand and suddenly he and it are in their faces. The gang retreats, leaving Thao for now, but not without threats that they’ll be back for him and for Walt.

What springs from this is predictable, sure, but it’s no less satisfying. The Asian community Walt long has vilified starts to lift him up as a hero of the neighborhood for helping Thao — a bounty of food comes his way. Walt doesn’t want any of it — he can’t stand these people, or any other race, for that matter. But when Thao’s sister Sue (Ahney Her, excellent), works her no-nonsense magic on him, lives start to change as gang threats start to build.

Although Eastwood has said that this will be his last acting role (we’ll see — and hope that’s not the case), what a way to go out. Beyond how good Eastwood is in the role — and he’s very, very good here, boiling into one character all of the elements we’ve come to love about the actor during his storied career — “Gran Torino” won the weekend box office, and it turns out to be Eastwood’s largest opening ever for a movie in which he’s the lead. On paper, that sounds like all the makings for a swell swan song, but nobody is going to want him to get too comfortable and enjoy it.

At least not yet.

Grade: A-

On DVD and Blu-ray disc

APPALOOSA, directed by Ed Harris, written by Robert Knott and Harris, 115 minutes, rated R.

Ed Harris’ “Appaloosa,” now out on DVD and Blu-ray disc, is being billed as a Western, which it is, but mostly, it’s a movie about the friendship between two men, which in this case helps it to transcend the genre and deepen the movie’s appeal.

Robert Knott and Harris based their script on Robert B. Parker’s novel, and what they created is a film that says more in its long stretches of silence than most movies say with a mother lode of dialogue.

How they pull this off comes down to the cast, with Harris and his co-star, a pitch-perfect Viggo Mortensen, creating a bond onscreen that resonates in a critical way — their chemistry generates the sort of interest that holds the film together during those stretches when it isn’t as action-driven as you might have hoped.

In the movie, Harris is Virgil Cole, Appaloosa’s marshal-for-hire, who along with his best friend and second hand, Everett Hitch (Mortensen), is trying to bring one man to justice. That would be Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), a wealthy, powerful man with connections who has been charged with murder and is about to be hanged for the crime. He won’t go quietly.

As the above story unfolds, another ties a noose around it — Cole must deal with his affections for Allison French (Renee Zellweger), a widow of questionable intent who “chews her food good,” looks pretty when she pinches her cheeks and does up her hair, and who can be a knockout in the right dress. Although Cole knows Allison is a drifter willing to fall into any man’s arms if it means keeping a roof over her head, he nevertheless is smitten, which becomes a cornerstone for the story as its more satisfying second half takes root.

Zellweger is the film’s weakest link — she has difficulty losing herself in a role that doesn’t offer many opportunities to do so. It’s a shallow part, slightly written, with the actress left stranded amid material that would rather focus on the dynamics between Cole and Hitch.

To that end, the movie is solid. Harris is excellent, nicely recalling elements of Clint Eastwood at his coolest, but he also generously steps aside and allows Mortensen to reveal just how good he can be, which is pretty terrific, as fans of “Eastern Promises,” “The Lord of the Rings” movies and “A History of Violence” will attest.

Grade: B

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