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Cry Macho (2021)::rating::2.5::rating::2.5

Last night, I listened to snippets of a new album by a French pianist named Colette Maze. The tracks were elegiac and meticulously constructed. You ready for the crazy part? Maze is 107 years old. She can recall both World Wars. I thought about her as I watched Cry Macho. Here is Clint Eastwood, a 92-year-old producer, director, and star, defying all the odds as he continues to expand his legendary body of work. All of his recent films provoke a foreboding rush of nostalgia: Eastwood is a cinematic treasure, and any new release could be his benediction. Or, he could keep cranking out big-budget movies for fifteen or twenty more years. Sure, laugh if you want, but we’ll see how funny it is when Eastwood totters up to the podium to collect an Oscar at the age of 112.

I hope that’s the case, because Cry Macho would make for a pretty weak epilogue. The movie kicks off with a disastrous opening, one from which it never fully recovers. Macho derives from a well-regarded novel by N. Richard Nash, who shares posthumous screenwriting credit with Nick Schenk. Faced with the daunting challenge of unloading several chapters worth of character background onto an unsuspecting audience, Nash and Schenk respond by trying to dump it all into the first few scenes. This unforgivable torrent of expository dialogue splatters to the ground like a dropped pot of steaming chili:

Mike Milo (Eastwood), a has-been rodeo star, strolls into the office of his ranch boss, Howard (Dwight Yoakum). The boss chides Milo for being late, and then proceeds to awkwardly recite his entire résumé, as if the two men haven’t known each other for decades. It seems Mike was once a championship rider, but that was “before the accident. And the pills. And the booze.” Merde. I don’t think the word “clunky” does this scene justice. To make matters worse, Eastwood follows it up with the second laziest way to unload information in a hurry: He pans his camera across a wall of framed newspaper headlines, with each one helpfully fleshing out Milo’s rise and fall from grace. I’ll also note that, among these images, Milo has preserved the moment he suffered a career-ending back injury, because who wouldn’t enjoy seeing that slapped on the wall? This entire stretch of the movie was so incredibly ham-fisted, I had to watch it twice to believe it.

Thankfully, Cry Macho has nowhere to go but up from here. Howard fires Milo, only to offer him an even more arduous job: Turns out Howard has an estranged teenage son, named Rafael, somewhere down in Mexico. Leta, the boy’s mother (Fernanda Urrejola), is wealthy, abusive, and emotionally erratic. Howard uses a combination of belligerence and guilt to convince Milo to find the boy and bring him to the States.

Milo ventures into Mexico, and finds a volatile environment surrounding the boy. Leta and her guards greet Milo with outright hostility. She says that Rafael (Eduardo Minett) is already a lost soul, prone to cheat and steal. Leta follows that with a thinly disguised bluff: If Milo can track down Rafael via the alleys and gutters, then the two of them can be on their way. When Milo eventually uncovers Rafael, he sees a frightened kid–grubby and scarred from abuse, but essentially good-hearted. After much persuasion, the two head north.

What follows is essentially a road movie, in which two disparate souls learn to love each other. It has also has the feel of a languid chase film, as Leta angrily dispatches her inept henchmen to retrieve Rafael. The kid travels with Macho, a surly rooster who’s earned a little money in the cockfighting pits. Macho acts as a surrogate for Rafael’s pent-up frustration: In the ring, Macho is able to make his opponents pay for challenging him. As a broken cowboy, Milo spends the balance of the movie trying to convince Rafael that being Macho ain’t what it’s cracked up to be.

To be fair, Cry Macho isn’t a complete loss. Milo and Rafael share a few scenes that ring with emotional truth, and the two actors build genuine chemistry. Their journey is beautifully filmed by cinematographer Ben Davis, capturing the sun-kissed bramble and clay of New Mexico in a way that hearkens back to Eastwood’s heyday. (Whenever he wasn’t somewhere in Sergio Leone’s Dolemites, anyway.) As a director, Eastwood displays his usual soft touch, thus allowing this laconic story to unfold on its own time.

Unfortunately, that’s also part of the problem. During the second act, Cry Macho moves like cold molasses. This is a featherweight story, a fact that only gets more noticeable as the movie goes along. The Mule, Eastwood’s previous starring vehicle, was dinged for being dramatically flimsy, but that film feels like King Lear compared to this one. Audiences hungry for narrative substance will likely be disappointed by Cry Macho.

At the same time, it’s an undeniable thrill to watch Eastwood break a wild horse and punch somebody’s lights out. He’s been playing a badass since Eisenhower was president, and any role could supply the period to the end of his sentence. It’s important–no, essential–to appreciate Clint Eastwood while we still have him. That’s assuming he doesn’t make ten more movies, of course.

104 min. PG-13. In theaters, and HBOMax.

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