Eastwood’s character in Gran Torino made me think not-a-little of where Dirty Harry might have ended up, long after the events of The Dead Pool – indeed, these two are the same man, at first glance. Both men are faintly xenophobic, though this is more overt with Walt Kowalski, providing the basis for the events of the film. As more than a few have said, Walt Kowalski seems to typify the kind of character that Eastwood is commonly remembered for, forwarded some thirty years – Harry Callahan, Blondie, et. al. Those inwardly-burning men, who “finish things.” The film itself actually vaguely reminds me of the Western archetype of the reluctant and amoral seeker helping to defend his town, his settlement, his camp – or in this case his neighborhood – from the ones without, here played by the Hmong gang-members.
It’s only as the film nears it’s end that we’re made aware of what really differentiates Kowalski – near the end of the film, he tells Tao, “You want to know how it feels to kill a man? It feels goddamned lousy. And it feels even worse when you get a medal for bravery right after you mowed down some scared kid when he tries to give up. A dumb, scared, little gook, just about your age. I shot him with the same rifle you just held upstairs. I’ve thought about that kid for fifty years. And I promise you boy, you want no part of it. Me, I’ve got blood on my hands. I’m soiled. Forgive me for tricking you like a dope.” Much like Callahan, Kowalski’s ornery disposition is a result of an outward hardening of his shell in response to his environment, but unlike Callahan, Kowalski’s isn’t a character of vengeance. Some have posited that this was an intentional subversion by Eastwood, presenting a character of ostensibly the same attitude and having him revealed gradually to be a character searching for repentance for those reprehensible acts that resulted in his current outlook. This seems to be supported by Kowalski’s final admonition to the Hmong gangsters to “go ‘head –”
Many critics saw the film as “an act of redemption for Dirty Harry,” even. One of them, The Independent’s Johann Hari, says of it:
“He goes to confront the gang, and we expect a gleeful shoot-out. But the gang are waiting for him, armed like a militia. Walt watches them slowly, sadly, and reaches into his jacket. As he does, he dares the gang to shoot him first. “Go ahead,” he says – deliberately echoing Dirty Harry. They fill him with lead, there, in the street. But it turns out Walt was unarmed – and now the gang is going down for life. His neighbours are free at last. The echo of the old catch-phrase is ironic: Eastwood’s smiling form of apology. The first time the actor said “Go ahead” on the big screen, he was sacrificing the law with violence to attack liberals. This time, he was using the law and non-violence, to defend immigrants.”
The film does, as some – among them Alexander Coleman from Coleman’s Corner – have noted, warrant a comparison with Don Siegal’s The Shootist, with John Wayne’s character J.B. Books becoming gradually intertwined with the Rogers family, and laying down his life for a son figure (played by a relative newcomer, with The Shootist‘s Ron Howard and Gran Torino‘s Bee Vang) in a similar manner as Kowalski does here – there is also an implication here that Kowalski is terminally ill, much like Books. And, most obviously, Books was Wayne’s last on-screen performance, as Kowalski was for Eastwood. In this, both films also seem to recognize the cultural significance of the men in their respective leading roles, with The Shootist beginning with a montage of Wayne’s previous Westerns, and Gran Torino – well, as previously noted.
Kowalski also seems to be just the first in a recent spate of elderly protagonists who’s world-weary perspective is gradually worn away by a younger character they find themselves becoming endeared to – most recently followed by Up‘s Carl Fredrickson, voiced by Ed Asner. Kowalski, however, can’t fly a house. Because you don’t learn that in Vietnam.