If you’ve seen ads for Clint Eastwood’s latest release, Gran Torino, but haven’t seen the film yet, you’re probably under the same impression that I was under. The previews are misleading. What looks like an intense drama about racial conflict is actually so much more … and so much better. Audiences will not be disappointed.

Filmed in only five weeks and on a $35 million budget, Gran Torino is about Walt Kowalski (Eastwood), a Korean War vet, retired autoworker, and recent widower. He has a poor relationship with his two sons and their families, and he is displeased with how his Detroit neighborhood has changed over the years. The only thing that remains from the life and world he once knew is his mint-condition 1972 Gran Torino.

One of the changes in Walt’s community is the people. His current neighbors are a Hmong family, and their cultures immediately clash. Walt refers to them as “swamp rats” and “chinks” and warns them to stay off his lawn. The main focus of the movie is how these characters “collide” with one another, which creates great tension and conflict.

This may sound like the 2004 hit Crash. But unlike that Academy Award-winning film, which explored the ways prejudice and racism connected multiple characters from different backgrounds, Gran Torino shows racism through the eyes of a single likeable bigot and digs deeper into the experiences that formed Walt’s attitudes. Sometimes racism is simply the result of not getting to know other people and the worlds from which they come. Eastwood’s character is not always politically correct, but that doesn’t make him a bad guy or the bad guy. In the film the real villains are, ironically, Hmong gang members, who victimize their own family and people.

Much of the film’s strength lies in the writing. The issues of racism, gang violence, generational differences, and redemption are woven together into a simple, character-driven story with great skill. Nick Schenk’s script contains smart dialogue, humorous scenes, symbolism, and real, relatable characters. The ending may be a bit predictable, but the story wouldn’t and shouldn’t end any other way.

Another one of the film’s strengths is Clint Eastwood as both director and lead actor. With films like Unforgiven, Mystic River, and Million Dollar Baby, it’s no secret Eastwood knows how to make a good movie, and his latest performance is bold and engaging. He has great chemistry with his young costars Bee Vang and Ahney Her, and their scenes together are funny and endearing. Eastwood claims this will be his last performance in front of the camera, and it’s really a tribute to the grizzly characters of his iconic 53-year career.

Although the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences didn’t take notice of Eastwood’s latest work, critics and audiences are raving. During its first weekend of release, Gran Torino grossed $29 million, which is Eastwood’s highest opening weekend ever. With earnings climbing well over $120 million, the film has far out grossed any of the current Oscar contenders and proves that the 78-year-old actor has still “got it.” The National Board of Review honored Eastwood with its award for Best Actor for his recent portrayal, and the American Film Institute named Gran Torino as one of the Ten Best Films of 2008.

Like many of Eastwood’s recent films, Gran Torino contains violence but with an un-glorified purpose, and it is rated R. It runs 1 hour and 56 minutes and is captivating from beginning to end. It is well worth the price of admission and will stay on people’s minds long after the final credits. It’s sure to stand out as one of Eastwood’s finest and most memorable films.

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