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This article was first published 15 years ago  » Movies » The old, the bad, the manly

The old, the bad, the manly

By Raja Sen
March 13, 2009 11:39 IST
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Clint Eastwood is The Man. Sure, Hollywood's had its share of men's men before, but Eastwood, the man who even made the poncho look studly, could stand them all up and knock them all down with a snarl, without even having to draw his gun. Steve McQueen is dashing as can be, but you'd have to be stark raving bonkers to back him in a fight against The Man With No Name. No sirree.

The thing about Eastwood -- that grizzly-stubbled, leather-faced, scowling cigar-chomper -- that truly set him apart from other heroes when he surfaced in Sergio Leone's magnificent Dollars Trilogy in the mid-sixties, was that he was always ready to shoot first. Here was a cowboy who had discarded his star-shaped John Wayne badge of pardnerly honour, and one mighty prepared to leave corpses in his wake just because he had to.

Now, in Gran Torino, Eastwood plays an ogre. Clint rasps and wheezes, and when he glares at his neighbours next door, he audibly growls. It takes a while to get used to this tough-talking racist bastard, but Eastwood's Walt Kowalski (named perhaps after the wrestler, Killer Kowalski) lives in his own fenced-in world. His wife has passed just before the film begins, and he would sooner drive a non-American car than give the time of day to his no-good sons. And as for the Asians living all around his neighbourhood, in his country, fuggedabouddit.

It is a tough role, expertly played. Clint is 78, and milks his magnificent body of testosterone-filled work with wonderful ease. It is as if Harry Callahan -- the man nicknamed 'Dirty' 'cause he took up the jobs other cops flinched at -- grew old, now lives with his dog and guards his porch obsessively. Or, for all the kids not yet familiar with Eastwood magic, it's like Batman's much-tougher war veteran grandfather.

The story is simple, meditative. Kowalski lives with his yellow Labrador, Daisy and his 1972 Gran Torino, a Ford he helped put together on the assembly line back in the day. He's infinitely better with guns -- his wartime collection seems intact at home -- and the garageful of tools he uses to keep the GT roaring like a pet Bengal tiger than he is with the neighbours, and he constantly breathes fire like a racist dragon.

There isn't much else you need to know about the film, save for the fact that Eastwood still believes in meting out justice, and that his temper is worse than his racial pejoratives -- he calls his Hmong neighbours everything from Dragon Lady to Egg-Roll, using the word 'Gook' with alarming freedom and even pronouncing Hmong wrong. (It's pronounced 'Mung', Walt sticks to saying 'Humm-ong')

But it is when he enters his barbershop that you realise his world -- where even the man he's genuinely fond of calls Walt a 'hard-nosed Polak' and he responds by calling Barber Martin a 'Dago' -- truly is the only relevant world for Walt, and he even tries to teach a young lad the same lessons. This, in his warped war-addled yet noble head, is what passes for manhood.

I must, at this point, interject personally to add that I am not the biggest fan of Eastwood the filmmaker. Sure, I love his work right upto Unforgiven (and Bird is lovely) but the films of the 2000s, the films the Academy fawns over every time, leave me cold with their disappointingly heavy-handed emotionality and their callous attempts at manipulating the audience. Feel free to disagree, I'm just Every time in the last eight years, whenever I've watched a Clint film -- you can't really avoid them, the blessed warhorse cranking out nearly two a year -- I've had to go back and watch A Fistful Of Dollars or The Good, The Bad & The Ugly to start digging Blondie all over again.

Gran Torino isn't like that. Gran Torino tells a simple story, without many frills, and while the end feels almost like Eastwood is apologising for the trend he began in 1971 with Dirty Harry, it feels right. It feels like Eastwood -- who has heartbreakingly stated that this may be his last film as an actor -- has a piece to say, and he says it simply, even ending by raspily singing the closing credits.

The man deserves a swansong of such furious glory, and when the film's last lines have him talking about how to care for that lovely military-green car, it is almost like he's leaving us, his fans, his legacy.

And it's in good hands. Because you don't mess with Clint -- not even if all he's pointing at you is a finger.

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Raja Sen