Gran Torino is a bad film, yes, but at least it has the decency to be an exquisitely bad film of the type you can enjoy if you can get your head in the right place, see it with a few buddies, and one-up one another in deriding plot holes and predicting developments. (Give your self one point if you correctly predicted Clint would say confession in the second half of the film, two if you correctly predicted it would be in the penultimate scene, and three if at the appropriate time you turned to the person you were sitting next to and said, "This would be a really good place for a montage.")
I said to my friend Peter (a.k.a. Smokey Burner) after the film--and it's imperative that you understand that I am absolutely, positively in earnest--that as bad as the film was, it would have been perfect with two small changes:
a) The addition of a Predator.
b) If the dog could talk (or at the minimum do a voice-over narration).
Before I explain, let me just say that I think it is Eastwood's presence that ultimately causes the film to implode. This is a shame, really, because if the film had starred Steven Seagal, Mark Wahlberg, or Vin Diesel, it could have gone straight to video as a Death Wish reboot without having to add all the Jesus imagery the only point of which seems to be to make you wonder if Gus Van Sant somehow decided to do a shot by shot remake of Unforgiven only to have a sly intern slip in pages of The Karate Kid to see if he would notice:
"What's it like to kill a man?"
"It's horrible; you take everything he ever has or will have. Now show me wax the car..."
(I got all three points for the quiz above, but I had one deducted for incorrectly guessing that when Eastwood gives the car to his Hmong mentee that the keys would be on his dog tags.)
But I digress.
Well, first the Predator, because if you are going to take the position that society has gone to hell and some sort of hunter needs to instinctively know who deserves to live and who deserves to get his face kicked in, he ought to at least have cool infra-red vision. Plus a Predator is relatively quick short hand for a film to just go ahead and announce that it is renouncing any claims to reality and just pandering to most basic instincts that attract us to genre pieces to begin with.
The dog takes a little more (but not much more) explaining. One of the things that hampers Eastwood is that the script calls on him to verbalize every response he has because it doesn't trust the audience to get even the most heavy-handed underlining. The opening scene is of his wife's funeral and he scowls at the grandkids and then (in case you didn't get it) their two parents (his kids) explain to each other why he is scowling at their kids. ("Did you see him scowling at your kid for wearing a Lion's jersey?" "Yeah, well your daughter is showing her belly button...") My personal favorite example of this ongoing expository dialogue is when Eastwood gets a phone call that begins, "Hi Dad, this is your number one son, Mitch..."
Unfortunately there are several scenes in which there is nobody around to serve as author (or interpreter) surrogate and tell us what his glowers mean, so Eastwood has to do it himself, either by looking in the mirror and/or talking to himself--"What the hell are you doing here?" or muttering under his breath to nobody in particular. In what I guess is the pivotal scene of the film, Eastwood watches a neighbor woman get out of her car and spill her groceries as a group of teenagers laugh and walk by her on the sidewalk. "Will you look at that!" he grumbles and starts to get up from his chair. Before he can, though, he notices his young, Hmong neighbor walk across the street and say, "Here let me help you." Eastwood then looks at the dog and says, "Well whaddaya know?"
Smokey Burner turned to me at that point and said, "The film couldn't just show us him watching that exchange and trust us to figure it out?" But my response was, heck, in for a penny, in for a pound. It would have been much more satisfying if either Eastwood (or the dog) added, "Hmmm, after witnessing this, I begin to wonder if perhaps I've/you've misjudged my Hmong neighbor. Maybe with the gruff but ultimately loving mentoring of the sort of cantankerous old person who is drainingly bitter and racist in real life but irascibly charming and just non-PC in the movies, he might actually bloom into a noble enough character that he's potentially worth saving from becoming the sort of misogynist punk that I'm/you're berating him for not being in the first place."
At the very least, such an exchange would indicate that the film was fully embracing self-parody rather than just flirting with it in a way that Eastwood's character would only call "weak-assed." Granted, people who haven't seen a lot of magical realism might not know what to make of a talking dog, but if they had just made the dog's bits voice-overs a la Look Who's Talking, Homeward Bound, or To Kill a Mockingbird (if, you know, Scout had been a dog), I think Gran Torino would have worked perfectly as a living fable rather than a drama. It may even have been guaranteed one Oscar.
Assuming, of course, that they could have gotten Morgan Freeman to play the dog.
P.S. The film ends with Toad driving the Gran Torino by the lake. If there remains any doubt about how many plot holes the film has or just how cynical a bastard I really am, I confess the one thing I most desperately wanted to see at that moment was the car full of black guys that harassed him earlier in film drive up along side and one of the passengers pull a gun and say, "Give me the keys, wuss--you're Hmongy buddies can't save you anymore!"