After 2018's The Mule, which may have marked a career low in a filmography dating back to 1955, Clint Eastwood really had nowhere to go but up. And Cry Macho, the icon's latest effort as director and star, is indeed an improvement, boasting some lovely cinematography and an absolutely first-rate performance by a rooster. Yet this understated drama is so stupidly, even offensively plotted that I found myself getting angrier with it by the minute, and the borderline-nonsensical happenings are sadly worsened by Eastwood playing the lead. He's not necessarily bad; at times, he's even enjoyable. But while I don't wish to be indelicate, there's no getting around the fact that, at the time of filming last year, Clint was 90, and he looks 90, and sounds 90, and moves 90 … and somehow, maddeningly, not one character in the film seems to notice.
To be clear, I think most men, most humans, would kill to be in such seemingly terrific shape as a nonagenarian. (Unlike in The Mule, we're denied the sight of Eastwood shirtless here – though I'm betting the thought crossed his mind.) And theoretically, despite the part practically begging for someone several decades younger, his Cry Macho role as Texan horse trainer Mike Milo – a former rodeo star whose career ended with a debilitating back injury – shouldn't be out of Clint's reach even in his very advanced years.
But 90 isn't 60, or 70, or even 80. So when the movie opens with Dwight Yoakam's rancher firing Mike for lateness and not being “the trainer you used to be,” you don't want our hero to punch the guy; you want him to file an age-discrimination complaint with the ACLU. When a drunken, lascivious 40-something takes off her robe and attempts to lure Mike into bed, you wonder whether he turns her down out of gallantry or fear of breaking a hip. (You also wonder just how inebriated this woman must be.) When a 13-year-old castigates Mike for not being the tough guy he presumed he was, you feel like barking at the kid “Show some respect, you little pisher – he's almost 80 years older than you!” And when Mike climbs atop a horse to teach said little pisher how to ride, and there's a not-so-discreet cut to the stuntman who's obviously doing the riding, you're definitely relieved, but also want to laugh. Among the Eastwood oeuvre, the sight isn't American-Sniper-Fake-Baby funny, but it is funny.
Clint still has his reserves of flinty charm and wit, and no one can deliver an aggrieved “Jesus Christ” under his breath quite the way he can. He's also, blessedly, less casually racist than he was in The Mule, delivering only a brief tirade against “you Mexicans” and “your dirty water” before entirely dropping the bigotry. Yet the living legend's casting, given the refusal of everyone on-screen to recognize that Mike isn't old so much as elderly, makes Cry Macho's narrative even more ridiculous than it otherwise would have been, and it was already plenty ridiculous.
Based on a 1975 novel by N. Richard Nash (with the film version in various stages of development since at least the late-'70s, back when Eastwood was first interested in adapting it), the script is credited to Nash – who passed away in 2000 – and The Mule/Gran Torino screenwriter Nick Schenk, and its story is set in 1980. That time period is certainly helpful for this seriocomic tale that sends Mike to Mexico City in order to retrieve his former boss' teenage son Rafael (Eduardo Minett) from the clutches of his alcoholic mom and her abusive boyfriends, as there's no threat of our presumed fun being ruined with talk of a border wall and ICE.
But still: In what universe would Yoakam's rancher send a guy Mike's age – a guy, remember, that the rancher recently fired for his escalating negligence – to carry out this plan? Why does Rafael's mother (Fernanda Urrejola) agree to let Mike take the boy in one scene and flatly refuse in the next? Why does Rafael keep expecting hunched, slow-moving, raspy-voiced Mike to be the ultimate badass? Why, with an armed henchman on their tails, does Mike not take Rafael directly to the U.S. border, instead deciding that they should spend a couple weeks lounging about in a tiny rural town? Is it just so Eastwood has an excuse to romance a much-younger woman – in this case, a sensitive café owner played by Natalia Traven?
And speaking of that café owner, how is she able to ward off a curious deputy merely by turning her eatery's “abierto” sign to “cerrado,” and directly in front of him, to boot? (Wouldn't even Rosco P. Coltrane see this as a red flag?) How is it so easy – and, as Rafael tells Mike, “no big deal in Mexico” – for our travelers to keep stealing cars? Why are we subjected to not one but two scenes of Clint slow-dancing in golden romantic light? Why do the citizens of Mike's weeks-long rest stop line up for the man to heal their wounded animals merely because they heard he's “good with animals”? (How on earth did these folks mend their pets and future dinners before this 90-year-old White Savior came to town?)
Nash's and Schenk's screenplay is grossly expository, especially in poor Yoakam's opening address to the man he's about to let go, and there are times in which you can't tell if the dialogue was atrociously written or if it's just Clint screwing up his lines. (An exchange between Rafael and Mike: “How did you find me?” “Your mother told me where you were, that's why.” Read that again.) But it was the endless stream of “Why?”s and “How?”s that really kept me dumbfounded throughout Cry Macho, and no amounts of well-meaning sentiment and purportedly touching Life Lessons were able to keep my loathing at bay. But at least there's that rooster, the Macho of the film's title, and he is sensational, demonstrating stronger comic timing than any of his co-stars and, at one point, attacking one of Rafael's tormentors with a ferocity otherwise absent from the picture. So way to go, Macho. Your movie may stink, but it sure wasn't you who cocked things up.
Like Cry Macho, writer/director/star Justin Chon's indie drama Blue Bayou might have been effective had I remotely believed in the plotting. Unlike Eastwood's film, this one, thanks to a handful of performers, is at least occasionally affecting.
Chon plays Louisiana tattoo artist Antonio LeBlanc, a Korean native who, after a mild grocery-store scuffle with a pair of policemen, finds himself facing deportation even though he was legally adopted and brought to America at age three. That's a harrowing and all-too-real set-up for cinematic family tragedy, and it's impossible not to be moved by the toll that Antinio's plight takes on the man, his wife Kathy (Alicia Vikander), and his young stepdaughter Jessie (Sydney Kowalske). Unfortunately, though, the means by which this narrative is set in motion are only-in-the-movies ludicrous.
Of course one of the cops has to be a vicious, corrupt, drawling racist who instigates the entire supermarket melee. (It was heartbreaking to see this thuggish stereotype being portrayed by Emory Cohen, who appears to have added 75 pounds but has misplaced all the subtlety and charisma he had when romancing Saoirse Ronan in 2015's Brooklyn.) Of course the other cop has to be Kathy's ex-husband (Mark O'Brien), a vengeful jerk named Ace who walked out on her and now wants custody of their child. Of course there are no other shoppers around to witness the officers' unmistakable baiting and bullying. And of course Kathy has to be in her third trimester of pregnancy when all this goes down, so we can anguish over her unborn baby's fate as well as hers, Antonio's, and Jessie's. Deck stacking is one thing, but the many eyebrow-raising contrivances of Blue Bayou – which continue with the suspiciously well-timed introduction of another, cancer-stricken immigrant (Linh Dan Pham) – are the sorts that make you lose faith in a film. How can you feel honest emotion when what you're meant to be moved by feels so fundamentally dishonest?
Every so often, though, the actors convince you that something genuine is happening. While her role is purely conceptual, in that she's basically only around to make Antonio a better person, Pham is a graceful and touching presence, and the great Vondie Curtis-Hall adds gravitas and decency as a down-to-earth immigration attorney. Kowalske is a delightfully spunky and naturalistic, as well as a wonderful physical match for Vikander, whose suitably teary tremulousness reveals welcome undercurrents of force and fire. Despite Vikander's overused proficiency for on-screen suffering – she really should make more comedies … or at least a sequel to Ex Machina – Kathy's pain and anger stick with you. (She also sings a beautiful, soulful rendition of the familiar title song.) And although his direction is too reliant on a shaky hand-held camera and his dialogue is a tad prosaic, Chon is powerfully empathetic even when the guy he's playing is engaging in destructive acts of self-sabotage. Antonio isn't a blemish-free good guy, which gives Chon a lot to work with, and he's got a fantastic tell as an actor: a left eyelid that reflexively twitches every time he's about to cry. I left Blue Bayou wanting more, but at least one of the things I wanted more of, and soon, was movie time spent with Justin Chon.
Maybe I missed the memo, but when, exactly, did The Last Samurai – or rather, Tom Cruise's hairdo in The Last Samurai – become such a surefire go-to for a punchline? In the first episode of this season of Ted Lasso, Ted made a point of referencing Cruise “rockin' a tiny little ponytail” in Edward Zwick's 2003 drama. And now, in writer/director Joe Carnahan's bloody thriller Copshop, Toby Huss' psychopath makes fun of Frank Grillo's con artist by saying that the guy's man bun reminds him of The Last Samurai – “that Tom Cruise movie that nobody wanted to see.” I'm not saying Zwick's film, or Cruise's hair, is undeserving of the ridicule. But it's kind of amazing that this unremarkable, 18-year-old star vehicle has suddenly turned into such an object of mirth. And it's really amazing that, in Carnahan's outing, the laugh it generates is only one of many, many laughs inspired by this unexpectedly clever, thrilling, and, yes, frequently hilarious B-movie blast.
Because the seedy delight of Copshop lies in its surprises, all I'll say about the narrative is that Grillo's lowlife gets himself thrown into a Nevada jail to avoid being killed by a competing pair of hit men, and then Gerard Butler's hit man gets himself thrown into the same jail to finish his task, and then Huss' hit man shows up to do them both in. (That's probably already more than you need to know.) But while the premise is juicy enough, the execution – make that plethora of executions – is close to sublime. Carnahan wisely spends much of his early time establishing the two-story jail house's geography and amusing us with the eccentricities of its staffers, primarily the rookie played, in a revelatory turn, by Alexis Louder. Once we get our bearings regarding location and character, though, Carnahan absolutely goes to town, gleefully annihilating both the building and many of the figures we've grown fond of, and doing so in ways that are continually unpredictable and far more black-comedy violent than you anticipate.
The agreeably silly setup eventually grows downright preposterous, and as usual, Butler becomes a drain on the enjoyment the moment the film wants us to consider him a charming rogue instead of the weirdly accented “American” brute the Scotsman is too-often cast as. Happily, however, it takes longer than usual for that to happen here, and Grillo and his man bun are great, and Louder is even better, and formidable character actor Huss is the best, employing an exaggerated Southern drawl to riotously malicious effect and appearing to have more fun on-screen than perhaps any other 2021 movie performer to date. His Copshop entrance, by the way, finds Huss in disguise as a balloon-delivery man, and Huss certainly cements the “loon” in that job description. He cements the “ball” in it, too.