The ludicrous title “Cry Macho” is oddly perfect for this pitifully bad movie currently playing in theaters and on HBO Max — perfect because you kind of want to cry watching Clint Eastwood try to demonstrate that he’s still, at age ninety-one, both the toughest hombre around and catnip to all women.
For decades, Eastwood’s maniacal physical fitness made him a formidable-looking senior citizen. But now he’s truly a frail, elderly geezer, with thin, papery skin and wispy white hair, and that unmistakable old guy walk, stooped slightly forward, with legs wide and shuffling. His famously low, growling voice is shot. Now it’s a creaky, sketchy, faded old whisper that couldn’t possibly put any convincing menace into a line like “Go ahead, make my day.”
Yet here he is, still wheezing out attempts at menace and punching malefactors in the face and breaking wild horses that buck violently in a way that would fracture every fragile bone in his body if he were actually in the saddle, instead of his presumably much younger stuntman. He also tantalizes the women in the cast, who have to exhibit impossible emotions ranging from raw lust to deep romantic yearning for him.
Anyway, the plot of this Clint Eastwood celebration of himself, produced and directed by as well as starring Clint Eastwood, is one designed to remind you of a vast number of other Clint Eastwood films from the past. At least Eastwood didn’t write the script as well, which is an appalling one — Nick Schenk, his screenwriter on Gran Torino and The Mule, gets the blame for that, though he’s clearly just trying to please the boss.
Eastwood plays Mike Milo, a former Texas rodeo champ whose life fell apart decades earlier when he broke his back and then, to make matters worse, his wife and son were killed in a car accident. A ruined man, he’s been carried ever since as an erratic hired hand by his wealthy rancher boss and crony, Howard Polk. This character is played by Dwight Yoakam, who gives a dreadful performance — didn’t this country singer once have a reputation as a surprisingly good actor?
Maybe it’s not entirely Yoakam’s fault, since he’s taken on the unenviable role of Exposition Guy, dropping paragraphs of explanatory background in order to introduce Mike’s character in the first scene. It’s a scene that should be shown in screenwriting classes as an illustration of what not to do. Then he offers up the premise of the rest of the film — he wants Mike to go to Mexico to rescue his teenage son Rafo (Eduardo Minett) from a bad home environment, presumably created by Yoakam’s ex-wife Leta (Fernanda Urrejola), a Mexican siren whom he says was fun for a night out at a club but no good afterward.
And so we’re off on this dubious adventure — Mike hitting the open road in his beat-up vehicle, in shots that look like those phony tough-rural-America ads for Dodge trucks. Will Leta turn out to be a rapacious harpy who tries alternately to seduce Mike and have him killed by black-leather-clad goons? Will the troubled Mexican kid get straightened out by the crabby, paternalistic old Western hero Mike represents, in a series of supposedly heartwarming scenes? Will racist clichés abound throughout? And will Mike finally recover from his ancient grief, find a new woman with a ready-made family who worships him, and reclaim his sense of himself as a paragon of true grit and old-fashioned manliness?
It’s an unsurprising yes to all.
The film makes for nice, easy scorning, and Clint Eastwood, as a person, seems to be a thoroughly mockable right-wing bastard. But Clint Eastwood the star was actually a remarkably compelling figure on-screen, and it’s depressing to see him brought so low out of some ornery, irrational refusal to quit while he’s ahead. Eastwood’s the actor who, along with a few other greats such as Robert Mitchum and Lee Marvin, stands at the crossover point of the classic Western and film noir, as those two opposed genres crashed together to make something brilliantly dark and grimly pertinent to post–World War II culture. The so-called “revisionist Western” that resulted is the form that brought the doomed modernist cynicism of film noir to bear on the old-fashioned Western, strongly tending to undercut all of the genre’s regressive major premises, in particular manifest destiny and American exceptionalism.
To his credit, Eastwood was eager to play antiheroes, and for quite a while, starting in 1964 with his international triumph as the Man With No Name in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western trilogy, he did a lot of very interesting work in movie collaborations with director Don Siegel and in noir-Western hybrids that culminated in the powerfully realized Unforgiven (1992). That’s a film that does such an insightful job linking masculine incompetence to explosive violence, it’s just embarrassing to see Eastwood return to critiquing the cult of masculine aggression here, in order to make weak, dull-witted feints at addressing the obsession with being “macho.” The boy Rafo’s urgent investment in this insidious notion of male strength is answered by Mike trying to talk him out of it with hopelessly addled words of wisdom, such as muttering to the kid that he better drop all that macho stuff because nobody goes for that kind of thing in Texas. You have to assume it’s a laugh line that just doesn’t come off.
It also doesn’t help that the script has Mike proving his old-coot machismo with clockwork regularity.
The film’s title is tangled up with the fact that the kid, Rafo, has a rooster, a fighting cock, that he’s named Macho. Once this is revealed, you find yourself in a half crouch of dread, waiting for the inevitable Eastwood one-liner. Finally, Mike croaks out ponderously, “Guy wants to name his cock Macho, it’s okay by me.” Heh heh.
It should be noted that, in this film, everyone gives a bad performance, including the rooster. When it comes to the humans, it makes sense, because the script is so atrocious it would seriously impair any actor. But the rooster couldn’t have read the script, so how did he go wrong?
I have to assume Eastwood’s direction is so feeble at this point that he left the rooster to work out his own character unaided — and as a result, you don’t believe for a second that this rooster is a champion fighter in the ring who’s so formidable, he takes down one of the leather-clad bad guys, single-clawed. This rooster is clearly a mild-mannered pacifist, and the role is beyond him.
It’ll be a shame if this is Eastwood’s last film, because it’s a rotten one to go out on, but all the same: please retire, Clint Eastwood. Go fishing. Or take up landscape painting, which is supposed to be restful. Or just hang out at the local bar, telling yarns about your many moviemaking adventures these last breathless fifty-seven years.