RATING |

"Gran Torino" has moved many critics to say it's the best Clint Eastwood performance they've seen.

If that's the case, then I think they may have missed a lot of Eastwood movies, including a few that featured an orangutan.

Eastwood is himself a silverback in "Gran Torino." He plays cranky widower Walt Kowalski, whom we meet on the day of his dear wife's funeral, squinting with open contempt at his grown sons and their bored, disrespectful brood.

Walt's a Korean War vet and retired autoworker who measures a man by his set of tools and ability to use them. He values hard work, keeps his house immaculately maintained and landscaped, and hates "gooks."

Yes, Walt is apparently a bigot (although the movie is confused on this point). Walt blames the shabby decline of his blue-collar neighborhood on an influx of Hmong immigrants, and curses at the large Hmong family next door, eyeballing them with the same hateful, squinty eyes he turned on his own kin.

Walt slowly warms to the spunky teen girl (Ahney Her, a nice performance), but it starts to look like war when her teen brother Thao (Bee Vang) tries to steal Walt's vintage Gran Torino. Thao fails, and his sentence, as per Hmong tradition, is to go into servitude to Walt.

Here "Gran Torino" works as a comedy - Walt initially hates the intrusion, but in time comes to enjoy putting the young man to work. They bond, Walt gets him a job, and introduces him to his Irish and Italian friends.

Walt and his pals exchange ethnic slurs in a jovial way, but not all such exchanges are friendly. Armed and dangerous Walt angrily confronts a gang of "spooks," and uses more offensive language in frequent run-ins with Asian gangs.

OK, Walt does all of this in defense of his meek Hmong neighbors, and in some ways his contradictions make him interesting. But the problem here isn't just the language Walk Kowalski uses, it's the hammy shorthand that director Eastwood uses for black and Asian gangs - they're like caricatures from "Death Wish 5."

These confrontations are played for laughs until the movie grows suddenly bloody and morbid. To some, what follows qualifies as more of the director's musings on violence and vengeance and the American myth.

I wanted to go along, but then I remembered that Walt Kowalski is not a notorious outlaw or an infamous vigilante cop. He's a retired autoworker, for heaven's sake.

Attempts to alter Walt to fit Eastwood's outsized legacy feel heavy-handed and add to the weird tonal shifts that hurt the movie as it lurches, finally, toward its solemn finale.

I left not knowing whether to laugh or cry, and so I did neither.

That Gran Torino is a cool car, though. *

Produced by B*ll Gerber, Cl*nt Eastwood, d*rected by Cl*nt Eastwood, wr*tten by N*ck Schenk, mus*c by Cl*nt Eastwood, Kyle Eastwood, d*str*buted by Warner Bros.