In the opening scene of this extraordinary spiritual movie, Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood), a Korean War veteran, is standing in front of a working-class Detroit Catholic church at the funeral of his beloved wife. He scowls at the disrespect evidenced by the unruly children of his two upscale sons. He's not pleased when the young priest, Father Janovich (Christopher Carley), meditates on "this thing called life."
Kowalski carries this same anger and scorn for others to his urban neighborhood when the family gathers at his house after the service. Cleaning up after everyone leaves, he grumbles over the Asian family next door who are hosting a blessing ceremony for a child. Kowalski calls them pagans. They are Hmong immigrants, whose people hail from Laos and Thailand; during the Vietnam War they helped the Americans and when the Yanks left, they fled for their lives. Many came to the Midwest through the help of the Lutherans.
Kowalski's neighbors are a granny, a mother, and her two children, Sue (Ahney Her), a gregarious girl, and Thao (Bee Vang), a shy boy. The run-down neighborhood is now inhabited mainly by immigrants and is dominated by gangs who drive through the place menacing at will anyone they want to humiliate or hurt. The local Hmong gang pressure Thao to join them, giving him the initiation task of stealing Kowalski's 1972 Gran Torino. But the old man catches the boy in his garage, points his rifle at him, and the boy flees. Later Kowalski breaks up a fight on his lawn and saves Thao from being seriously hurt. His neighbors respond by giving him a tribute in food and flowers. Sue later invites him to their house for a party and introduces him to her relatives. He learns from her that Hmong girls go to college and boys go to jail. A shaman is very interested in Kowalski and reads him as an unhappy man who has no peace within and very few friends. As an outsider, he is quite taken with the food and the strange habits of the Hmong people who share his uneasiness around strangers. Kowalski says to himself: "I have more in common with these gooks than with my own spoiled, rotten family." His sons want to put him in a nursing home and sell his house.
Kowalski, whose bark is worse than his bite, turns out to be quite a Good Samaritan despite his caustic Archie Bunker-like slurs on different ethnic groups. Thao's mother insists that the boy work for their neighbor to make amends for trying to steal his car. The boy is quite interested in the Korean War veteran's extensive collection of tools. Having worked for an auto company for many years, Kowalki is a skilled handyman. He offers to help Thao get a job. When he sees Sue being harassed by some African-American punks, he rescues her from harm's way. This endears him to his neighbors even more.
Gran Torino is directed by Clint Eastwood from a screenplay by Nick Schenk. Here is a spiritual drama that charts the transformation of a bigoted, lonely, and caustic old man into a neighbor with heart and a new mission to take care of Sue and Thao. One of the most interesting dimensions of this drama is the relationship between Kowalski and Father Janovich, the young priest who promised the old man's wife that he would check in on him occasionally to see how he's doing and get him to make a confession. Kowalski doesn't make it easy for the priest criticizing him for not knowing anything about life and even less about death. But Father Janovich perseveres in trying to reach him, in the process becoming quite impressed with his blooming relationship with Sue and Thao.
Eastwood puts in a stellar performance as Kowalski, a working-class stiff whose toxic and deep-seated prejudice is slowly whittled away through his contact with his Hmong neighbors. The pleasure in watching this miracle take place is what makes Gran Torino one of the best films of the year!
Special features on the widescreen edition DVD include "Manning the Wheel: the meaning of manhood as reflected by the American car culture" and "Gran Torino: More Than a Car: Visit Detroit and the Woodward Dream Cruise, an Annual Vintage Car Event where buffs describe the unique bond between men and vehicles."