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Eastwood makes his point

CONSIDERING that Clint Eastwood's most iconic roles have been serious ones, it's easy to forget that he can be funny - that he possesses terrific timing with his sly sense of humor.

He grumbles and growls his way through his most entertaining performance in years in "Gran Torino" as Walt Kowalski, a Korean War veteran and lifelong auto worker who's disgusted with the changes in his blue-collar, suburban Detroit neighborhood.

There are unshakable shades of Dirty Harry here, as well as Frankie Dunn, the curmudgeonly character he played in 2004's "Million Dollar Baby," his most recent screen appearance.

At 78, Eastwood combines both the tough and playful sides of his personality - in front of and behind the camera as star and director - with "Gran Torino," which begins in broadly entertaining fashion but ultimately reveals that it has weightier matters on its mind.

Having just buried his saintly wife, all the retired Walt wants to do is be left alone with his dog, his guns and his beer - a seemingly never-ending supply of Pabst Blue Ribbon, which he drinks with an old-school earnestness rather than a kitschy, hipsterish way.

His grown sons suggest that perhaps he'd be happier living in some antiseptic nursing home, and the local Catholic priest comes by, sensing that Walt might need to unburden himself and urging him to give a long overdue confession. He blows them all off repeatedly.

As a sharp-tongued bigot, he certainly doesn't want to be bothered by the growing Asian population all around him, and especially not the Hmong family next door.

Despite hurling every imaginable epithet at these people - Nick Schenk's script is unabashed in its political incorrectness - Walt can't seem to avoid them.

First, he catches shy teenage son Thao (Bee Vang) trying to steal his mint-condition 1972 Ford Gran Torino as part of a gang initiation he's forced into by his thug cousin.

Then, cultural tradition dictates that Thao must make up for the transgression by working for Walt for free.

This is basically an excuse for Walt to force the boy, whom he nicknames "Toad," into doing chores around the house in some of the movie's more amusing scenes.

But the old man also finds an unexpected connection with Thao's older sister Sue (Ahney Her), who shares his blunt-talking attitude.

And when he orders a group of gang members at gunpoint to "Get off my lawn" - with echoes of Eastwood's classic "Go ahead, make my day," - he's perceived as a vigilante hero among the Hmong community.

Sure, the premise is predictable.

You know at beginning that Walt's contact with his neighbors will soften him. And maybe the performances are a bit stiff from his young actors, all untrained first-timers.

But "Gran Torino" becomes more intriguing as the journey its takes us on evolves and grows darker, albeit with Eastwood's trademark, no-nonsense aesthetic.


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