One thing about Clint Eastwood, even at 91-years-old the seasoned and often surly actor, director and producer still plays by his own rules. His notorious and staunch independence is what led him to turn down an offer to play James Bond and pass on the lead role in Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now”.
Yet that same self-reliance also drove many of the choices that led to his screen-legend status. And when it’s all said and done, few will be able to claim a more impressive or prolific career than the man with the steely squint and gravelly snarl.
For over six decades Eastwood has been a poster boy for stoic masculinity in movies. From his iconic Man with No Name role in Sergio Leone’s trio of spaghetti westerns to his gnarly San Francisco police officer “Dirty” Harry Callahan to his crusty intolerant curmudgeon in “Gran Torino”. I mention that because his latest film “Cry Macho” offers Eastwood a chance to look back on a long career often defined by its tough machismo-soaked roles.
“Cry Macho” won’t go down as one of Eastwood’s best films nor is it the kind of movie that will change any minds about his work. Yet it’s the type of stripped-down and straightforward story that’s perfect for this stage in Clint’s career. It’s an endearing reflection wrapped in an overly simplified story that gets by, not because of the character on the screen, but because of the legend who fills his shoes. Then again, so much of Eastwood is packed into the character that you could call them inseparable.
Set in 1979, Clint plays Mike Milo, a worn-down former rodeo champion working as a horse trainer for a wealthy rancher named Howard Polk (Dwight Yoakam). We first meet the unapologetically gruff Mike as he shuffles in late for work (again) prompting a fed up Howard to fire his crusty ranch hand. But before doing so Howard unloads with an exposition-heavy rebuke that only exists to lay out Mike’s troubled backstory – his crippling rodeo accident, the addiction to pills and booze, the crushing family tragedy.
This hurried and awkward opening continues “one year later” when Howard shows up needing help. He wants Mike to go to Mexico City and bring back his estranged 13-year-old son, Rafo (Eduardo Minett) who lives with his wild and neglectful mother, Leta (Fernanda Urrejola). “You owe me Mike,” he reminds the old cowboy. “Yeah, I owe ya,” Mike replies honoring an old-fashioned code that believes a man’s word means something.
The story then heads south of the border where Mike finds young Rafo at a back-alley cockfight. The two don’t exactly hit it off, but predictably over time a bond develops between the old man, the young boy, and a rooster named Macho. Their road-trip has its hazards – car thieves, the federales, Leta’s goons. At the same time, the absurdity of it all isn’t lost on Eastwood who never misses a chance to squeeze out some pretty good laughs.
Despite all of its neo-western dressing, “Cry Macho” is actually pretty mellow and is much more interested in the two lost wandering souls than its low-key thriller elements. This becomes clearer when the movie takes a sudden detour eventually settling down in a small Mexican village. There Rafo gets his first feel of stability while Mike’s leathery exterior begins to soften thanks to the kindness of a local cantina owner (Natalia Traven). This is where the movie really hits its free and easy stride.
The aggressively simple story has its obvious conveniences and missing details which Eastwood has no interest in exploring. But that’s consistent with Clint’s signature efficiency and clear-minded classicism. It’s the emotional and even spiritual undercurrent that ends up driving the movie. It’s Eastwood’s critical self-analysis and reflection mixed with a healthy dose of irony. It’s the unexpected sweetness, warmth, and compassion.
Ultimately the mileage you get out out of “Cry Macho” may hinge on your connection with its legendary star and director. If you’ve been with him for decades, this film will be a graceful extension of that journey. And while the his latest won’t be for everyone, it reminds me of how glad I am that Clint Eastwood is still making movies.