In “Cry Macho,” an old rodeo rider, Mike Milo, gets asked to do a favor. It’s a big one. His former boss (Dwight Yoakam) wants Mike to go to Mexico City and bring back his 13-year-old son, Rafa. The boss hasn’t seen the boy in seven or eight years, and Rafa’s mother is opposed. So is this favor a rescue or a kidnapping?
You might wonder how old the rodeo rider is. He’s played by Clint Eastwood, who also directed. Eastwood is 91. Take a moment to ponder that number. The character’s not meant to be as old as that. Over the course of “Cry Macho” (the title is more deflating than you might think, but we’ll get to that), Clint punches a bad guy in the face, holds a gun on him, rides some horses, and does a lot of driving. Old Clint is still Clint, but he definitely looks a little stooped and more than a little frail.
There’s an unexpected benefit to that frailty, and it makes this leisurely, not especially plausible film worth watching. The frailty underscores something that’s been evident throughout what is now a 66-year acting career: Eastwood’s innate elegance.
Yes, elegance: Whether as the Man With No Name or Dirty Harry or any of his other roles, action and otherwise, Eastwood has always made every gesture count, an economy of motion he shares with his predecessors and peers Gary Cooper and John Wayne. Doing relatively little made those gestures matter all the more. Movie stardom’s favorite principle of physics is the law of conservation of energy. Having done this for decades as artistic choice, Eastwood now does it as gerontological imperative.
Nearly all of the movie takes place in 1980. Being in the past does double duty. It underscores a sense of timelessness. This is a modern-day western, emphasis on “western,” right down to breaking mustangs and sleeping under the stars next to a campfire and the brim of the Stetson Mike wears being nearly as wide as his shoulders. The distance in time also defuses, mostly, the now-fraught issue of border crossings and immigration. The talk heard here of “gringos” and “federales” sounds quaint rather than inflammatory. The film was shot in New Mexico, which handsomely stands in for Texas and Mexico, but not too handsomely.
Yoakam is good as the father, nicely conveying both authority and slipperiness. Eduardo Minett, as Rafa, is perfectly fine. That he’s not more than that is highlighted by the vividness of Natalia Traven as Marta, a cafe owner who helps him and Mike. It’s a ridiculous role. Marta is a plot mechanism in the guise of earth mother. But Traven’s palpable warmth and real presence add an extra dimension to the movie. “Cry Marta” might be a more suitable title than “Cry Macho.”
Macho is the name of Rafa’s rooster, a fighting cock. “I don’t care if his name is Colonel Sanders,” Mike grumps. The name nicely deflates the genre’s — and Eastwood’s — association with machismo. Also, let the record show, the actor has a history with non-human costars. Eastwood had big hits sharing the screen with Clyde, an orangutan, in “Every Which Way But Loose”(1978) and “Any Which Way You Can” (1980).
Mike’s initial aversion to Macho is a bit surprising, since he’s like a horse whisperer for all creatures great and small. When the residents of Marta’s village start bringing him their pets and farm animals for medical attention, he’s mildly disconcerted. “They must think I’m Doctor Dolittle or something,” he mutters. The animal care is one of several sentimental elements in the movie. Marta’s granddaughters? Resistance is futile. Fortunately, Eastwood’s flinty Clint-ness mostly keeps the sentimentality in check. Plus, there’s that whole age business. When the village’s deputy sheriff and his wife bring their dog to be examined, Mike admits the limits of his medical prowess. “I don’t know how to cure old,” he says. No one does, though Eastwood’s doing a lot better than most.
Directed by Clint Eastwood. Written by Nick Schenk and N. Richard Nash; based on Nash’s novel. Starring Eastwood, Dwight Yoakam, Eduardo Minett, Natalia Traven. At Boston theaters, suburbs, and streaming on HBO Max. 104 minutes. PG-13 (language and thematic elements)
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.