01/10/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Gran Torino : Who's Saving Whom?

The character of Walter Kowalski in Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino is so deftly pitched at Eastwood's power zone -- and he swats it so far out of the park -- that it's only afterward, when the buzz of watching an old pro handle the perfect role wears off, that the questions start nagging.

Does the fact that Eastwood plays a curmudgeon with retrogressive racial attitudes excuse the slurs that flow so easily from his tongue? Does the fact that his character undergoes a redemption make up for the sort of paternalism that the story embraces? Is this a profound tale of an awakening racial understanding -- or just a potboiler that uses those racial trappings as fuel for its melodramatic plotting?

In other words, is Gran Torino a breakthrough -- or the same old same old, tricked out with a potentially Oscar-winning performance by Eastwood?

For all the humanism this film espouses in its portrait of Walt as an old dog capable of learning new tricks -- or at least gaining a modicum of awareness about one particular ethnic minority -- there's also the kick-ass vibe of '70s films like The Legend of Billy Jack and Walking Tall. Walter is the unwilling but ever-ready sheriff of the neighborhood, a guy with standards and the backbone to enforce them.

He also spouts the kind of racial epithets -- "gook," "zipperhead," "fishhead" and, yes, "nigger" -- calculated to inflame. They're meant to demonstrate something about the attitudes and prejudices of his generation, and the fact that he gradually gains an awareness of how degrading and hurtful they can be. Not that he stops using them, but now he's using them with affection. I'm curious whether, had this been a film about him living in an African-American neighborhood, the other actors would have been comfortable with his character calling someone "my nigga."

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