LUKE’S GRADE: D+

Nestled around a campfire on their way back to America, the finish line for the so-called rescue mission that justifies “Cry Macho,” Rafo (Eduardo Minett), a young cock fighter stuck in the middle of his parents’ border-reaching squabbles, asks Mike, the wrinkly, sort of bounty hunter played by Clint Eastwood, if he wants to know why his mother hates him. In one of the few, genuinely nostalgic moments of a film banked on Eastwood’s “return” to the Western, Mike coldly, hilariously, responds, “not really.”

It’s a good laugh for a few good reasons. The rejection is the exact kind of dismissive honesty much of Eastwood’s tough-guy persona – and subsequently, his decades-long reign at the top of Hollywood – revolved around. Also, as Minett monologues into the desert night sky, looking off into the distance as if the answers to his woes were dancing somewhere between the cactus and the armadillo (though, in reality, it might just be where the cue card was planted), it’s an untuned cherry on the top of another poorly performed scene.

But beyond the laugh, as Rafo bulldozes through Mike’s inattentiveness – dismissive, in fact, of the dismissiveness – the scene comes to represent one of “Cry Macho’s” most persistent problems: a roadblock ignored.

Throughout “Cry Macho,” a film intended to be some kind of reflective statement against the macho attitude embodied, if not immortalized, by the Eastwood archetype over the years, the dramatic hills generally required in narrative are reduced to anthills, bits of dust and dirt vulnerable to the slightest of breezes – or in this case, the force generated by the 91-year-old star’s flying fist.

Now, Eastwood will be 92 next May. When considering his age, the accomplishment and diligence of his productions can be questioned (for a hearty example, look no further than the fake baby used in 2014’s “American Sniper”) but never denied.

That being said, in “Cry Macho,” where the villains have the vigilante know-how and criminal stamina of Swiper the Fox (“oh man!”), the fact that the Academy Award-winning director is beginning to grapple with his age onscreen coarsely crisscrosses the film’s insistence on being an action thriller. The end product is a strange one: one of Eastwood’s most deceptively dishonest films to date.

As Mike, a past-his-prime rodeo star torn down, a lazy overture tells us, by booze and pills, Eastwood’s frailties have never felt more unavoidable on the screen. Whether mounting a bucking horse, punching a goon in the face, or settling in for an under-the-stars nap, the director doesn’t hide his many physical limitations. In that way, the editing respects the audience – we know when Eastwood is on the screen and when a double has taken his place; whether or not that’s a point of praise depends on the experience you’re looking for – a regular filter of honesty difficult to pan.

That admirable self awareness does not extend, however, to the rest of “Cry Macho.” As Mike hightails it to and from Mexico – Rafo’s father, Mike’s former boss Howard (Dwight Yoakam), wants to raise him in the states, away from the mother neither son nor dad trusts – Eastwood can’t alleviate himself from the action rifts of the story or the tropes of his past. Women’s knees still buckle whenever he enters the room (thankfully, unlike “The Mule,” he’s able to keep his pants on here), brawls, without question, still go his way, and every so often, like around the campfire, a blip of his “Dirty Harry” persona spills out from his tongue. With desert sky silhouettes, regular Marvel cinematographer Ben Davis even lends his hand to the “greatest hits” angle of “Cry Macho.”

But if you listen to the characters, as Mike tries to explain to Rafo why he doesn’t need to be so standoffish and why the badass mode of life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, there shouldn’t be any room for a nostalgia reel, right? It’s odd, if not entirely disappointing for a film to start an introspective conversation and assume the mere mentioning of an idea is enough to satisfy an audience that’s willing to listen.

What’s odder is that Eastwood’s late career has already bolstered many better examples of all the ideas brought about in “Cry Macho.” As if “Unforgiven” – perhaps the greatest swan song between icon and genre ever put to film – wasn’t a good enough exit for the Western, going into the new millennium, Eastwood quickly established his strength as a mentor figure in both “Million Dollar Baby” and “Gran Torino.” Why he felt a return to those ideas was necessary is beyond me.

But without projecting Eastwood’s highlights onto “Cry Macho,” his latest hardly passes for an action thriller, a designation the film seemingly can’t live without. Watching Mike and Rafo settle into a comfortable Mexican town, sponsored by a kind-hearted restaurant owner (Natalia Traven), the better movie appears: a soft, sensible story where a lost man unexpectedly finds himself in the arms of a stranger. If that was the movie Eastwood wanted to make – instead of tossing in random – that’s what he should have done. Instead, evil lurks around every corner, stalking, ridiculously, as a threat with no intention on following through.

Take one “Cry Macho” scene at a diner. After getting into a petty argument with Mike over a cowboy hat, Rafo gets himself caught in the parking lot by one of his mother’s henchmen. Eastwood stumbles outside to find the two struggling, the rooster, Macho, pecking the goon’s legs with the same sidekick fortitude as Clyde the orangutan. 15 years ago, the enemy may have nabbed Rafo entirely, forcing a daring rescue scene out of Mike to prove his dedication to the job, or maybe even to Rafo himself. What actually happens, or rather what doesn’t happen, is ridiculous enough to not be spoiled here.

I remember very vividly watching Eastwood as Dirty Harry look into the screen and smirk the phrase, “a man’s got to know his limitations.” That same man reportedly got the script for “Cry Macho” in the 1980s, before opting out of the project because he felt he wasn’t old enough to properly handle the role. If he was too young then, he’s simply too old now.

Eastwood did not, or does not know, his limitations.

Luke Parker is a journalist and award-winning film critic covering government, schools, crime, and business. To send a tip or question, email lparker@chespub.com. For updates, like Luke Parker — Journalist on Facebook or follow him on Twitter: @lparkernews

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