'Gran Torino'

"I think the movie will surprise some people, the nuance of it," Eastwood said. (Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles Times)

In the afternoons, there's a hush and warm amber glow in Clint Eastwood's office, which, unlike other bungalows at the Warner Bros. studio lot, has a rustic feel and furniture that manages to be just as practical as it is stylish. All of that suits the 78-year-old Hollywood icon who started off his career as John Wayne but seems to be finishing it as John Ford.

The newest addition to the office décor is a grim poster for "Gran Torino," Eastwood's 66th feature as an actor and his 29th as a director; in the black-and-white photo, the movie star's face is clenched up in his famous scowl, a weapon that's been brought to bear on cinema street punks and sidewinders for decades.

Eastwood will be the first to say that, for "Gran Torino," there's a bit of false advertising at work in that theatrical scowl and its message to longtime fans who might think the new movie is about "Dirty Harry" Callahan working a grand theft auto case.

"I think the movie will surprise some people, the nuance of it," Eastwood said as he sat back on a couch in his office. "If it was just a kick-ass movie, well, I wouldn't want to do that. I've done those kinds of movies. These days, I would only do the movie if it had something to say. I didn't want it to be Dirty Harry at 78."

Instead, Eastwood brings us prickly Walt Kowalski, a Korean War veteran and recent widower who treats his lonely house and its yard as occupied territory in a neighborhood that has changed through the decades. The biggest change is the influx of Hmong neighbors, whose Asian culture, language and faces remind Kowalski of his own dark deeds that he had hoped were left behind in a distant land. Those memories and a brewing conflict in the neighborhood with young gang members set up the smoldering conflict in the film and, well, if you recognize the scowl on the poster, you know there's a showdown coming.

The title of the film refers to Kowalski's one prized possession: a gleaming, muscular 1972 Gran Torino that resides in his garage, along with a lifetime of tools, which he treats reverently, like souvenirs from an age when men could fix things and people said what they thought and worked hard. There's a streak of Archie Bunker in Kowalski, who has a deep and dazzling command of racial epithets.

Eastwood chuckled at the idea that the film is a primer on the white American lexicon of bigotry.

"He could be from another world but he's a common guy for his generation," Eastwood said. "Everybody talked like that in the 1940s. I remember going to Oakland Tech and it was a high school but it also had a trade school connected to it. All the vets coming back from World War II were going there, so we were going to the same campus as guys who were 25, 26, 27 years old. They talked like that. They called each other Sam the Jew, Joe the Mick, Frank the Dago, whatever. Of course, you always said it with a smile on your face. If you said it without a smile on your face, well, then it meant something different."

Eastwood, as is his style, made the movie quickly, cheaply and with a disdain for the industry convention of shooting take after take. He shot in Detroit and used nonprofessional actors -- many of whom did not speak English -- to portray the Hmong community members. Most days, he would tell his amateur players to run through a scene on set and he would secretly signal the camera crew to start rolling.

"I actually shot them before they knew it half the time and then I'd go back and piece it all together," he said with a grin. "I had to keep my eye on the ball pretty well. You can't afford to sit and mess around. You got to be ready. If you don't want to lose something, you have to have the camera on. Nonprofessionals don't repeat things. They do things by accident that turn out great."

Eastwood is a four-time Oscar winner and, judging by the early reviews for "Gran Torino," there may be more statuettes in his near future. His recent run of films -- " Changeling," "Million Dollar Baby," "Mystic River," "Flags of Our Fathers" (he also composed the score for these) and "Letters From Iwo Jima" -- seem to be essays on loss, wounded souls, sacrifice and past sins. "Torino" certainly speaks to all those but Eastwood said he has no template that he seeks in a project other than a great story to tell.

"I liked the journey," he said. "Kowalski is haunted from his past. And all his friends are dying or dead. Everybody is dead. And that's the way it is when you're 78 years old. I like the fact that Kowalski learns something. I had to put him in that kind of extreme situation in order to take even one step on a journey toward tolerance of other people and other customs. He's thinking of these people as barbarians for cutting off the heads of chickens. That seems like a big deal to him. But he's cut off human heads or whatever."

Eastwood said one reason he took this role is, well, there aren't many other actors he could have turned to. He said Gene Hackman would have been interesting but he's retired now. Maybe Robert Duvall. But in the end, the director decided it was a worthy role and one that had a vague resemblance to his longtime role as Harry Callahan, the San Francisco cop who kept reloading for five films.

"Maybe he's got some of the same loneliness," Eastwood said. "Kowalski believes in the law in an old-fashioned way, he's not trying to right every wrong. He might have a little of Frankie Dunn in him, the character I played in 'Million Dollar Baby.' Maybe a little bit of the guy I played in 'Heartbreak Ridge.' But this guy is his own guy. That's why I wanted to play him. There's no sense in doing something I've done before at this point."

geoff.boucher@latimes.com