Clint Eastwood delivers another humbled performance in Cry Macho

By: Steve Pulaski

I was a bit perturbed when I saw Clint Eastwood was directing yet another movie following I assumed his would-be swan-song The Mule. It wasn’t that I lacked faith the 91-year-old Hollywood legend wouldn’t have another good film in him. It was more of my regard for The Mule being not merely a fitting finale, but also a comfortable one. It had Eastwood playing a crotchety drug-runner coming to grips with his troubled yet accomplished legacy in the face of mortality.

Now Cry Macho enters the picture. A serene, unhurried drama, it features an equally humbled Eastwood yet again driving great distances; only this time, his cargo is a 13-year-old boy whose father wants custody. If The Mule had the veteran actor pensively examining his own footprint on the world, Cry Macho has Eastwood scoffing at the years he made the phrase “tough-as-nails” his crowning personality trait. Now gimpy and haggard with merely adequate tread left on the tires, Eastwood sees what the “macho” lifestyle gets people: a broken back and with fewer answers than they thought they had before.

It’s 1979 and Eastwood’s Mike Milo arrives at the horse ranch of Howard Polk (country singer Dwight Yoakam) at the noon-hour. The two can’t even bother exchanging niceties before they lay into one another the way old men so amusingly do. Howard tells Mike he’s late. “For what?,” Mike balks. Howard then rips Mike — a former rodeo-man and a damn-good one at that — that he hasn’t been the same since “the accident,” and the copious amounts of pills and booze have made him a shell of himself. Mike is fired, but not before he offers some choice words to the “small coward” Howard.

It doesn’t take long for Howard to rehire Mike, albeit for a job not quite the same as horse-breeding. He asks Mike to travel to Mexico to kidnap his now-teenaged son, Rafa (newcomer Eduardo Minett), who lives with his promiscuous mother in an abusive household. Mike begrudgingly accepts the gig. He arrives in Mexico and meets Leta (Fernanda Urrejola) at her mansion. “Why would a kid want to leave this?,” he asks himself upon pulling up to the gate. Leta shrugs off Howard’s hired help. She’s seen it twice before, and the one guy didn’t make it back alive.

Nevertheless, Mike persists, eventually finding Rafa, an impressionable kid, caught up in the street-life of gambling and cockfighting. His trustiest companion is “Macho,” a hard-headed rooster. The two narrowly dodge a police raid and hit the road with one of Leta’s bodyguards hot on their trail. Rafa comes around to the idea of living on an idyllic Texas horse ranch alongside his father, free from the scars and bruises of his mom’s too-many-boyfriends-to-count. One thing Rafa constantly reminds Mike is how “macho” he is, however, he can’t even begin to intimidate Mike. Throughout the journey to the border, Mike tells Rafa the value he places on toughness is wrong-headed.

Clint Eastwood was offered the leading role in an adaptation of N. Richard Nash’s Cry Macho in 1988. Eastwood, feeling he was too old at the time, elected to do The Dead Pool, another Dirty Harry sequel, instead. Talk about fitting to the anthesis of the subject matter of Nash’s novel and Nick Schenk’s screenplay (co-written with Nash). These days, Eastwood is intimidating people with his scowl moreso than his physical attributes. He’s a lanky old man, and we believe that he believes the wisdom his Mike imparts on Rafa.

Cry Macho‘s predictability finds some new life about halfway through when Mike and Rafa happen upon a small Mexican town only a few dozen miles from the border. This comes after a few close-calls with the federales and a switch of vehicles. They are given shelter in a homey diner by a middle-aged woman named Marta (Natalia Traven), with whom Mike begins to fancy. In this town, both Mike and Rafa are permitted a much-needed breather. Mike lends a hand at a nearby horse-ranch, grooming some stallions in the process, and even teaches Rafa how to ride (he’s gonna need that skill in Texas, after all). Mike’s gentle-hand with the horses gets a bit of a reputation, and soon townspeople are bringing their animals to him in hopes he can work some Houdini magic on their ailments.

In these moments, Mike is reminded the old idea of “catching more bees with honey” as opposed to proving to every insect in the hive that he’s the toughest one. Meanwhile, Rafa takes a liking to the slower pace, and even has his own (thankfully subtle) connection with a local girl. A lesser approach might’ve prioritized the nerve-wracking encounters with the cops, or the thrill of stealing a car. Schenk and Nash treat them more as happenstance; they’d rather fixate on making the little moments bigger, wisely so.

Cry Macho is destined to be one of Eastwood’s litany of films many of us will come to appreciate more upon the inevitable. What we have at the moment is a living legend whose economical filmmaking style has produced many gems, and, as of late, a couple bashful entries in what was already an enviable cannon. My apprehension for Cry Macho be damned. It makes a sweet little companion-piece to The Mule, another film that will be held in higher regard in due time.

NOTE: Cry Macho is now playing in theaters and streaming on HBO Max for 31 days.

Grade: B

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