“His name is Macho,” exclaims teenaged Rafo (Eduardo Minett), road-trip co-passenger to Mike Milo (Clint Eastwood), in his latest picture Cry Macho. “I don’t care if his name is Colonel Sanders, just get his ass back there,” Mike growls back. What is important here is that the ‘he’ under discussion is a chicken (a full-grown cock, to be specific). Thank goodness the poultry is not offended by movie references to KFC.
It has been a shade over 50 years since Eastwood’s first film as director, Play Misty for Me, released. In 2021, 91 years old, and about 40 directorial ventures young, the man still makes movies; and he still knows how to dish out a crowd-pleasing line. Eastwood has a handful of these verbal punches in Cry Macho. Set in the luscious landscapes of the Mexican west, bathed in warm glows, this is a film that is always on the move. Still, it does not let you feel the pace at which it is moving, because of Eastwood’s understanding of what kind of craft a certain kind of story needs.
On paper, a description of the film would almost read like a thriller. A rich Texan hires an old former rodeo star to head into Mexico and bring back his half-Mexican son, through the tentacles of goons, thieves, and federales. But Cry Macho is not a thriller. It is a reflective buddy movie involving the unlikely pair of Rafo and Mike. And of course, a cock named Macho. It is a film about do-overs, about the poignant joy of hitting the refresh button in life, whether you are in your teens or 90s.
Cry Macho often punches far above the underwhelming writing at the heart of it.
The film is set in 1980, and it turns out the screenplay by Nick Schenk and N Richard Nash (based on a 1975 novel of the same name by Nash), has been around since about then. And it shows. Things happen far too conveniently on Mike’s ‘mission.’
He keeps losing cars, and he keeps getting another straight away, one way or the other. And of course, Mike just seems to be good at everything. He can still tame wild horses and use his fists in a fight (and at his age, he seems to need just one punch). He fixes broken things, provides seemingly competent veterinary care to animals, and even has far younger women openly desire him. Mike Milo clearly is not supposed to be as old as the actor playing him. A septuagenarian at best, certainly not a nonagenarian.
Even the dialogue is mostly banal, apart from the few lines that Eastwood knocks out of the park. The film opens with the Texan ranch owner (Dwight Yoakam) literally telling Mike about his own life – you were a rodeo star, you had an accident, you got addicted to pills and booze, the works; I’m paraphrasing, but it is that expository. Even the central message of the film, its raison d’etre, is pretty much revealed in the trailer through a line by Eastwood himself – being ‘macho’ is overrated. Admirable message, but a little sanctimonious considering all the ‘macho’ things Mike effortlessly does throughout the film before he says that.
If there is any sign that the screenplay reflects the times it is being produced in (as opposed to when it was written and set), it is the fact that there is only the mildest hint of casual racism in this film set around that controversial southern border the US shares with Mexico. Mike does not seem to openly have a problem with Mexicans the way many old conservatives in America have been aggressively cajoled into having by one half of their political class today, but he still drops quips about ‘you people’ drinking unclean water and suchlike.
What Eastwood does with this kind of merely passable material is enable you to take the leap of faith with it. It is a gentle film, with an unusual tenderness to it in stretches. Rafo and Mike stop and stay in a small town, get to know people there, and do cute little things with them that no way seems to be a hindrance to that ultimate objective of getting to the border, to ‘freedom,’ as Mike calls it at one point.
You get a sense that he is not saying Rafo will be any freer in America than he will be in his home country, where people ostensibly just lift cars by saying we are all brothers anyway. The freedom he is referring to could possibly be the freedom to make his own mistakes and learn from them, the way Mike himself has done. It could have turned out either too testosterone-ey or too schmaltzy, but Eastwood knows where to draw the line. It is more cute than cool, and therein lies the deconstruction of ‘macho.’
Cry Macho is nowhere near Eastwood’s finest work. (My personal favourites from his filmography happen to be ones he does not star in – the World War 2 companion pieces Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima.) Still, it is the kind of film that reminds you, the man has got game.