Clint Eastwood has often shown a weakness for corn, usually tempered by the unfussy efficiency of his direction and, in movies where he does double-duty in front of the camera, by his mythical screen persona. But in Cry Macho, the corn is inescapable. A project that has kicked around for some 40 years, the film was planned at various times as a vehicle for, among others, Roy Scheider and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Whether either of those actors would have been more persuasive, we can only guess. But this is a story so crusty and antiquated in its conveniently resolved conflicts, contrivances and drippy sentimentality that it should have been left on the shelf.
Nobody takes pleasure in beating up on an esteemed veteran, but it’s borderline ridiculous to watch Eastwood wheeze and shuffle his way through a role with a whiff of the white savior, in which not one but two attractive younger señoras — one evil and loca, the other a saint — want to jump his arthritic bones.
The Bottom Line
Formulaic and fatigued.
The late writer N. Richard Nash penned the screenplay, originally titled Macho, in the early ’70s. When it was turned down by multiple studios, he expanded it into a novelization that only then was optioned for the screen, drifting in and out of development for decades.
Nick Schenk was brought in to tailor the material for Eastwood, having written The Mule and Gran Torino, the latter of which shares this film’s central melodramatic dynamic of a gruff oldster softened by his unexpected friendship with a teenage boy. But as told here, Cry Macho is a story drained of all nuance, with the simplistic blandness of a bad YA novel. It’s the kind of movie where, rather than let the audience observe the gradual development of a mutual understanding, we get Eastwood’s Mike Milo spelling it out in lines like “You’re kinda growing on me, kid.”
Mike is a five-time rodeo champion whose riding career was derailed by an accident. Booze and pills followed, along with the tragic loss of his wife and son. In 1979, a year after firing Mike from his position as a horse trainer, wealthy rancher Howard Polk (Dwight Yoakam) calls on him for a one-time job. Howard is unable to cross the border into Mexico for legal reasons; he wants Mike to go and fetch his 13-year-old son, Rafo (Eduardo Minett), whom he says is being abused in the care of his crazy mother, Leta (Fernanda Urrejola), in Mexico City.
A brush with Leta and her thuggish security team shows Mike why Rafo chooses to stay on the streets, making enough cash to get by with his fighting rooster, named Macho. Cue much folksy wisdom about strength, toughness and masculinity, with the youngster dismissing Mike as washed-up and weak, until the gringo shows him a thing or two about rough-hewn resilience.
Rafo is reluctant to accompany Mike back to Texas at first, having no more reason to trust the father that abandoned him than he does his coldhearted mother. But Mike persuades him by relaying Howard’s promise that he’ll have the run of the ranch and his own horse.
The majority of the action covers the return journey, with delays caused by car theft, engine trouble and pursuit by both the federal police and Leta’s men. But there’s a sleepy quality to the storytelling, with none of the conflict ever packing enough menace to create suspense. Instead, Cry Macho starts to resemble an old-school Disney TV movie about a pair of unlikely buddies who have much to learn from one another.
Then there’s the gentle romance. Veering off the main roads to avoid detection, Mike and Rafo stumble onto a desert cantina run by Marta (Natalia Traven), a kind widow raising her orphaned granddaughters. She takes Mike and Rafo in, and for reasons that have less to do with narrative logic than formula rules, they stick around for a few weeks. That allows Mike to exchange tender glances with Marta over tortillas while Rafo gets close to her eldest granddaughter (Elida Munoz).
The interlude also gives Mike a chance to brush up on his horseman skills, breaking in wild mustangs and teaching Rafo to ride in what seems like a remarkably short time.
The pedestrian screenplay seldom leaves much doubt about where it’s headed. The biggest surprise is the way it exposes Howard’s shady reasons for wanting his son back as leverage. That makes him not much better than Leta; Mike is pretty much delivering the boy from one unfit parent to another. By that time, however, Cry Macho has abruptly shifted gears to be about the old cowboy’s second chance, ending on a note of sweet schmaltz. The kid basically becomes a pawn in world-weary Mike’s redemption tale.
This is a minor entry in the filmography of the prolific Eastwood’s twilight years, and while it provides the actor with opportunities for self-deprecating digs at his legendary persona (“This macho thing is overrated”), the writing is too tin-eared and unsubtle for those observations to land. The customarily sinewy direction also has a disappointing slackness, yielding some lackluster performances. Only DP Ben Davis’ atmospheric shooting of the occasional sweeping landscape gives this feeble movie some breadth.