Eastwood plays Walt, a Korean War vet and retired factory worker disgruntled about the growing Asian population in his beloved Detroit. Walt has just lost his wife and can't stand his two sons and their families. He casually says stuff like "gook" and "zipperhead," often into the faces of his Asian neighbors. When Thao (Bee Vang), the teenage boy from next door, tries to steal his prized '72 Gran Torino as part of a gang initiation, it causes the racist part of Walt's personality (about 97 percent of it) to boil over.
Things are already bad in the neighborhood when members of Thao's gang step on Walt's lawn during a nighttime confrontation. Walt gets out the old rifle, and Clint consequently dusts off his Dirty Harry persona. The gang far outnumbers Walt with people and weaponry, but they still cower and run when the old bastard growls at them.
Of course, the movie would have no purpose if Walt remained merely a hateful racist pig. So he gradually becomes a hateful racist pig with a jolly sense of humor, sort of like Archie Bunker with a big gun and a hair trigger. He takes Thao to a local racist barber, where they playfully exchange racist barbs and laugh it up. At one point, the barber actually points a gun in the kid's face while delivering those playful racist barbs. Just like your barber used to do back in the olden days!
The supporting players come off like cheap Hollywood stereotypes played by bad actors. A youngish priest (Christopher Carley) tries to elicit a confession from Walt in a sequence that is annoying and badly played; it's hard to buy the notion of Walt warming up to him. Vang seems like a likable young fellow, but his acting is worthy of a Raspberry Award in the moments when his character needs to dial it up. Ahney Her, who plays Walt's young, tough neighbor, Sue, is stiff and inconsistent at best.
Eastwood seems like a caricature of himself, overdoing it with the scowls, growls and grimaces. This is one of those movies in which a main character is constantly coughing up blood. It's always amusing how Hollywood characters like Walt and Doc Holliday can cough up huge globules of blood one moment, and then kick the ass of somebody far more imposing than them the next.
That is not the only unrealistic element; after all, this is a movie in which a 78-year-old man is able to yank a thug at least 50 years younger than him off a porch and repeatedly punch him in the face. Then there's a scene where gang members harass Thao as he walks along reading a book. Who walks and reads books at the same time? Has anybody ever seen somebody intently reading a piece of thick literature as they walk along an inner-city street? It's probably supposed to show that the character is sweet and introspective, because he reads. The only time it's safe to read and walk is in a vast, open field, and even then, you risk attacks by marauding dogs and crows.
Eastwood is a talented director and actor, and Gran Torino has a few good moments. A quick shot of Walt applying jumper cables to a car, right after berating Thao for requesting them during his time of mourning, is a nice, subtle touch. Too bad the rest of the film has all the subtlety of a planet landing on your head.