This “macho thing,” says Clint Eastwood in his latest film, is “overrated.” Same with grit, he says.
What? What is this, some sort of rickety, sweet-tempered road movie about an old man, a boy and a rooster?
“Cry Macho” is exactly that, in addition to be a few other things. It is Eastwood’s 39th film as credited director. If you don’t count “The Mule,” his sidewinding, highly profitable 2018 drug-runner biopic that traveled similar backroads to those found here, it’s his first Western since “Unforgiven” nearly 30 years ago. His character, Mike Milo, is a retired rodeo rider; the love interest, as Old Male Hollywood used to call it, is a Mexican cantina owner played by Natalia Traven, who is nearly 40 years younger than Eastwood. He’s 91. And making movies.
One half of Eastwood’s long, rangy directorial career subverts or at least complicates the other half. You might even say it’s atoning for it. Eastwood has always ducked the question of whether he’s trying to “say” anything about American machismo in all its cathartic, coolly vicious Dirty Harry glories and limitations (a man’s gotta know one’s limitations, as Harry once said). Yet here we are, in “Cry Macho,” a story about a man, a boy and a rooster on a road paved with regrets. And there is Eastwood, essentially denouncing what made him so many millions along the way — even if his best work (and best scripts, not incidentally) have questioned that macho stuff all along.
Parts of “Cry Macho,” set in 1979, are blasé in their it’ll-do artlessness; a late-breaking car crash, for example, is fakey enough to make you start a Patreon to raise money for a one-day reshoot. The first scene lays out the story premise with extreme clunkiness. Dwight Yoakam plays Mike’s longtime rodeo boss, the Texas rancher slagging off Mike’s beaten-down rodeo veteran before we know anything about him. The screenplay comes from Nick Schenk (”Gran Torino”), freely adapting the 1975 novel, itself based on a screenplay, by the late N. Richard Nash, best known for the 1950s stage favorite and film “The Rainmaker.” The exposition is as blunt as it gets. In a few abrupt lines, Yoakam clues us in regarding Mike’s late wife and child, killed in a car accident, which led to a downward spiral into alcohol, pills and the end of Mike’s career.
Now it’s time for Mike to repay what he owes his belligerent boss for supporting him in his dotage. “Cry Macho” sends Mike from Texas to Mexico in order to kidnap the boss’s son, Rafo (Eduardo Minett), and bring him over the border to his estranged father. The boy hates his abusive, promiscuous mother, and is living on the streets, making what he can at the cockfights with his pet rooster named Macho. With snarling henchmen in pursuit, Mike and Rafo head back towards Texas, accompanied by the bird.
Eastwood nearly made “Cry Macho” in 1988. He has claimed in interviews he wasn’t old enough for Mike at the time, although in Nash’s novel — a lot grimier and rougher than the movie, which has a new, gentler though mighty abrupt ending — Mike is 38 years old. Whatever. Eastwood got to it when he got to it.
The midsection of “Cry Macho,” a lyric small-town interlude, lets the plot nap for a while, as Mike teaches Rafo how to break wild mustangs, and Mike and Rafo come into the saintly good graces of the widow Marta (Traven) and her grandchildren. It’s far-fetched — a fairy tale, straight up — but it’s the best part of the movie. The whole of it would work better with a stronger young actor as Rafo (and better dialogue for him). The gods of plausibility were napping on this project; out of nowhere, after establishing their linguistic barriers, Mike’s fluent in Spanish and Rafo’s a whiz in English. The narrative deviations toward the end from Nash’s novel make less and less sense. Yet they, too, go into the “whatever” column, if “Cry Macho” exerts any kind of hold on your sense of nostalgia.
Eastwood’s career remains a marvel: Well into his 80s, “American Sniper” grossed half-a-billion worldwide, pointing to the America First brand of patriotism (the nice word for it) we’d come to know so well during the Trump years. That film also had some startling, honest moments of reckoning, in its depiction (however selective) of the trauma of wartime and the psychic cost of bloodshed. “Cry Macho” feels like a tacit corrective. The 1979 story setting places it around the time Eastwood was beginning to experiment with material (”Bronco Billy,” “Honkytonk Man”) and to figure out how many different shades of messed-up tough guy he had in him as an actor.
It’s far too much to claim that “Cry Macho” belongs anywhere near work from Eastwood’s greatest streaks — the 1992-1995 run of “Unforgiven,” “A Perfect World” (his most provocative machismo fable) and “The Bridges of Madison County,” which remains one of the best film adaptations made from one of the worst books ever written. “Unforgiven and “Million Dollar Baby” won Oscars. Since that run, the onetime Man With No Name has made huge commercial hits like “Gran Torino,” one bizarre, undervalued biopics (”J. Edgar,” a repressed movie about sexual repression) and, for the hell of it, a musical: “Jersey Boys,” which turned out to be not Eastwood’s thing.
“Cry Macho” may be fond and foolish in equal measure, but it has a few grace notes to remember, in addition to a fine gallery of images of Eastwood in silhouette, at dusk, against a big sky, alone with his thoughts. “Look where you’re going,” the cowboy tells the kid during a riding lesson, “and go where you’re looking.” It’s a throwaway moment. But it’s the quintessence of Clint, and I’ll remember it a while.
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for language and thematic elements)
Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes
How to watch: Premieres Sept. 17 in theaters and on HBO Max
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.
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