The magic in “Gran Torino” begins when you realize you’ve been tricked into thinking that retired auto worker Walt Kowalski (magnificently played by Clint Eastwood, who also directed) is an ignorant racist. Eventually the story discloses that he’s actually on a quest for decency and civility in a vulgar, narcissistic time. We start off amazed that his standards are so low. We end up thinking they may be higher than ours.
A Korean war vet, Kowalski talks crudely about his former enemies, the gooks and chinks. He also calls his barber a dego. The barber calls him a polack. They obviously adore each other nonetheless. Holding onto his house in a changing Detroit neighborhood after the death of his wife, Walt thinks the family next door are either gooks or chinks, one, until he learns from the charming, crackling Sue (Ahney Her), one of the neighbors, that they’re Hmong, an ethnic minority from Laos who fought on the U.S. side in Indochina.
The movie doesn’t milk this irony as much as it might have. Walt’s heart is softened not by the sweet chords of interracial harmony but his belief about the promise and vulnerability of Sue and her gang-threatened brother Thao (Bee Vang). The breakthrough begins when Thao walks across the street to help a woman who's dropped her groceries. Though she was a gook or chink, Walt had been about to do it. When Thao rises to the occasion, you see the gears begin to whir behind Dirty Harry’s .44 magnum blue eyes. A father figure is born, and a fatherless young man is saved.
Walt’s relations with his own materialistic sons and their families are cool at best, a la the old Harry Chapin song "Cat's In the Cradle." It's his greatest regret, we learn, thanks to the persistence of a young parish priest who's trying to keep his promise to Walt’s dying wife to get him to come to confession. At their mom’s funeral, one of his sons, offended because Walt has scowled at the ring in a granddaughter’s navel, whispers to his brother that their dad’s stuck in the 1950s. That moment comes early in the movie, when you think it’s supposed to be an insult. Another of “Gran Torino”’s magic tricks.
Grace finally abounds when Walt (whose garage workshop, with every tool in its place, was just like my godfather Louis’s) rescues Theo and Sue in what seems to him, and maybe even to us, to be the only way out. Memo to pastors: “Gran Torino,” like “Doubt,” is a great Bible study movie. It takes the church, faith, ambiguity, and the Cross seriously. Scores of grown men and women left the theater with watery eyes and quiet, composed faces -- and not just because jazz hound Eastwood, his voice so ravaged that it’s sometimes just a whisper, decided to sing the movie’s title song over the closing credits.