Producers: Clint Eastwood, Albert S. Ruddy, Tim Moore, Jessica Meier   Director: Clint Eastwood   Screenplay: Nick Schenk and N. Richard Nash   Cast: Clint Eastwood, Eduardo Minett, Natalia Traven, Dwight Yoakam, Fernanda Urrejola, Horacio García-Rojas, Alexandra Ruddy, Ana Rey and Paul Lincoln      Distributor: Warner Bros.

Grade: B

Those of a certain age will find it heartening that at ninety-one Clint Eastwood can still function quite capably both behind the camera and in front of it.  At one point in “Cry Macho,” his character of Mike Milo is using his veterinary skills in a small Mexican village when he’s asked to tend to an exhausted dog and, muttering “I don’t know how to cure old,” proceeds to inform the owner that the animal just needs sleep.  But his own response to becoming a nonagenarian is apparently not just to rest on his laurels but to stay active, though his gait, both as actor and director, has understandably become more deliberate and cautious.

Older viewers will probably also be most the receptive audience for the movie, an easygoing tale of the bond that grows between a troubled teen and a crotchety old cowboy during a road trip from Mexico to Texas.  The story begins in 1979, when Mike is fired from his long-time job as a horse trainer by his friend, rancher Howard Polk (blustery Dwight Yoakam), who—we learn—had rescued him when he was a down-and-out alcoholic after the deaths of his wife and son and an accident that had ended his rodeo career.

A year later Howard approaches him to ask a favor, one he says is owed him: Mike will go to Mexico City and bring Howard’s thirteen-year old son Rafo (likable Eduardo Minett) to him in Texas.  The boy, Polk insists, is being abused by his mother Leta (overripe Fernanda Urrejola). 

Mike reluctantly agrees, and finds that Leta is indeed as bad as Howard suggested.  She’s addicted to drugs, booze and seedy men, including her nasty current squeeze Aurelio (sneering Horacio García-Rojas), and as a result Rafo has escaped to the streets, where he ekes out a living with his rooster Macho in cockfighting contests.  Mike finds the kid, who turns out to be not the rebellious brat Leta’s described but a sensitive, if suspicious, boy, and persuades him to accompany him to the border where Howard will be waiting.  But it turns out that Leta, for reasons that emerge later, won’t let Rafo leave, and after he and Mike nevertheless hit the road sends Aurelio to bring her son back.

The trip amounts to an episodic picaresque, classically composed and marked by locations with agreeable visuals thanks to Ron Reiss’ production design, Deborah Hopper’s costumes and especially Ben Davis’ crisp widescreen cinematography.  There are a few action moments—a couple of encounters with Aurelio, a car theft, an altercation with a pair of federales looking for drugs—but the movie’s longest span is devoted to the pair’s sojourn in that little village, where Mike not only helps the locals with their injured animals but teaches Rafo to ride while making a bit of cash via his ability to tame wild horses (though the use of doubles in these scenes is glaringly apparent, and probably of little concern to the director). 

They also become close to Marta (earth mother Natalia Traven), the widowed proprietress of a cantina—and loving grandmother to two adorable girls, one of them deaf (luckily the ability to sign is yet another of Mike’s skills)—who has eyes for Mike the moment he ambles into her establishment and, in time, will share a dance with him to music from the jukebox he’s repaired.  (The pleasantly flavorful score is by Mark Mancina, with songs providing the proper flavor inserted periodically.)

The script by Nick Schenk and N. Richard Nash, adapted from the latter’s novel, is often extremely on-the-nose: the opening bout of expository dialogue between Mike and Howard, for example, lays out Milo’s past with almost surgical directness, and the crustiness in Eastwood’s dialogue is calculated to meet expectations.  But it does, late in the day, add a touch of sly self-deprecation when Rafo’s exaltation of machismo and contempt for weakness provokes Mike to remark, “This macho stuff is overrated,” and proceed to criticize a life devoted to it. 

That’s all part of the obligatory rift that occurs between man and boy in the third act, an aspect of Howard’s motive for wanting Rafo back that neither of them had been aware of until recently.  It’s a twist that frankly turns the ending at the Texas border into something bittersweet rather than jubilant.  But it also allows Macho, who’s been both comic foil and symbol over the course of the journey, to become a character in his own right, and to cement the bond Mike and Rafo have built. 

The pacing of “Cry Macho” is the very definition of unhurried.  Every move that Eastwood the actor makes is careful, and so are those chosen by Eastwood the director and editors Joel and David Cox.  Moments of vigor are few and far between, and even when they occur they’re understated. 

That befits the film, which might follow the arc of a pursuit thriller but is tonally an autumnal story of a man recovering a sense of purpose after a lifetime of regret.  Slight and sentimental it may be, but it effectively plays on the gruff, taciturn persona Eastwood has built over the years to make for an engaging journey.