At the center of the film is Eastwood himself, starring as newly widowed Korean War vet Walt Kowalski, as out of place in his fading, gang-riddled rust-belt suburb as he is in the company of his family, especially his opportunistic, nouveau riche son who wants to ship him off to a retirement home. Kowalski trades good-natured ethnic insults with the other old timers, still placing importance on distinctions between Polish, Italian and Irish, while to the town's mostly non-white residents, they're equally a bunch of old crackers. Unabashedly racist and perpetually locked into a Korean War mindset, Kowalski's narrow assumptions come into question when a family of Hmong immigrants move in next door.
His relationship with his new neighbors gets off to a rough start. In a forced gang initiation, the family's teenage son, Thao (Bee Vang), tries to steal Kowalski's beloved vintage car (the Gran Torino of the title) causing the older man to pull out his rifle and chase him away. Turning his gun on the gang when they next appear, he frees the boy from their immediate clutches, but ends up making powerful enemies, the gangbangers surfacing periodically throughout the film to make threatening noise. He also gets to know the Hmong family, his racist orientation gradually - and convincingly - melting away as he grudgingly befriends young Thao and sets about teaching him how to "be a man".
Apart from Kowalski's racial attitudes (and his penchant for calling Asian people "zipperheads" is shown to be an obvious holdover from his Korean war days and not borne of any sort of intrinsic hatred), the film highlights two other questionable assumptions central to his character that Eastwood at least partly calls into question. The first is Kowalski's self-casting as a Dirty Harry-type vigilante. Although he cuts a rather ridiculous figure from the start - his outmoded attitudes toward sexual behavior and his constant disapproving scowl mark him out (at least initially) as a near-parody of a wizened, hyper-masculine movie type - he proves surprisingly effective when he translates this seemingly anachronistic personality into action. Cruising the town in a pick-up truck as out-of-date as he is, he pulls a gun on a group of three menacing thugs, delivers a slightly ludicrous catch phrase ("Ever notice how you come across somebody once in awhile you shouldn't have fucked with? That's me.") and saves the neighbor's daughter from presumptive sexual assault. If this scene seems vaguely implausible, it nonetheless establishes a certain viability behind Kowalski's pose without which the film couldn't function. Yes, Eastwood suggests, the grizzled vigilante is a cinematic cliché (and one, of course, that he helped to forge), but even as he critiques that iconic figure, he suggests that it's not without its uses. And if these uses can easily spill over into dangerous acts of aggression, then at least Kowalski learns in the end just how far to take his act.
The second assumption of Eastwood's character, and closely tied to the first, is his very specific ideas of what it means to be a man. When we first see Thao, he's being verbally abused by a Mexican gang as he walks down the street. Rather than respond, he simply keeps reading his book and ignores them. It's just such behavior that causes Kowalski, in his initial interactions with the boy, to deride him for being a "pussy". But as the older man begins to take an interest in his young charge, he starts to instill in him a certain code of masculine behavior which includes learning how to engage in man-to-man banter, asking girls out on dates and, above all for the notoriously passive Thao, asserting oneself. Although Eastwood never fully calls into question these thoroughly entrenched, and at least partially outdated, notions of masculinity, some of Kowalski's assumptions - such as his ideas of how men should talk to each other - are allowed to seem thoroughly ridiculous, while others are imparted to Thao as important life lessons. As easy as it is to dismiss the old man's attitudes, the film never lets us reject them entirely; there's always a layer of hard truth underneath his crusty scowl.
But in the end, after much cogitation, Kowalski comes to understand masculine action as being as much a question of strategic self-sacrifice as simple balls-out bluster. If Torino's climax comes down to the same type of all-or-nothing moral accounting that proved so risible in Million Dollar Baby, in this film, Kowalski's choice feels like the result of a carefully considered reflection on his specific, complex circumstances and not as a simplistic attempt of the director and screenwriter to force significance onto an otherwise thin piece of work. Modifying without rejecting his conceptions of vigilantism and masculinity, Kowalski devises a clever way out that leaves Thao spotless while setting the boy a better example to follow than that offered by either his impotent family or the destructive gangs that dominate the Hmong community. If this ending somehow feels a little too neat, it's the only conceivable way to bring together the film's conflicting ethical strands, tweaking Kowalski's assumptions while still asserting him as a viable character. Eastwood may retain his penchant for blunt moral confrontations that occasionally lapse into hysterical badgering, but at least in Gran Torino they're tempered by a more nuanced understanding of the reasons for that hysteria. And if that's not enough to qualify the director for any kind of cinematic greatness, then at least it's a convincing step in the right direction.