Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
This is the adaptation of the 1975 novel by N. Richard Nash. Nash himself had originally wrote this story as a screenplay, but his script was rejected by 20th Century Fox. After Nash turned it into a novel and that novel became successful, Fox decided to buy it. Originally, Clint Eastwood was pitched to star in it back in 1988. Eastwood had made a career of starring in Westerns in the 50’s and 60’s, so it made sense to tap him. Nash’s story was a Neo-Western, but Eastwood dropped out. In the forty years since the novel has been available, there have been numerous attempts to turn it into a feature. It’s only appropriate that it would come full circle and land on Eastwood again not only to star in it but also to produce and direct it.
Eastwood plays Mike Milo, a former rodeo star who now works as a rancher and trainer in Texas. He works for a white landowner named Howard Polk, played by Dwight Yoakam (Logan Lucky and Sling Blade). Mike gets fired from his ranching and training job, but Howard gets Mike to do one last thing. Howard asks Mike to go to Mexico to retrieve Howard’s son. Eastwood was 90-years-old at the time of shooting this film. I presume that his character is the same age, which is a bold choice. If Eastwood weren’t directing, I doubt any other director would cast a nonagenarian in this role. When Eastwood was first approached, he was 58, which is probably a better age.
Eduardo Minett in his feature debut plays Rafael Polk aka Rafo, the teenage son of Howard. Rafo lives with his Hispanic mother in Mexico. His mother is wealthy, probably more wealthy than Howard. She lives in a veritable mansion in Mexico City. Rafo would seem to have a great homestead, but it’s revealed that his mother might lead a very promiscuous lifestyle and brings in men who are abusive toward Rafo. As a result, Rafo has run away from home, lives on the streets and makes money by competing in underground cockfights. He even has a pet rooster named Macho, which is Spanish for strong.
Given Eastwood’s extensive filmography, it’s easy to find commonalities or repeated patterns between his works. Mike gets in a truck and goes on a road trip. Seeing Eastwood behind the wheel, one might be reminded of The Mule (2018). Mike spends time with Rafo, a teenage boy who is of a different race or ethnicity. Seeing Eastwood interacting with a teenage boy who is a different race or ethnicity, one might be reminded of Gran Torino (2008). However, I feel this film combines those previous Eastwood narratives in a bemusing way.
As mentioned, Eastwood’s age here might be the most problematic. On one hand, having a 90-year-old on this journey is intriguing. If for no other reason, it’s intriguing because there are some slight action and thrilling moments where the film engages with the question of how Mike is going to get out of what are physically dangerous situations. Yet, those moments underline how improbable it is that Howard would even send someone that old to fetch his son.
Later, Mike develops a romance with a Mexican woman named Marta, played by Natalia Traven. It’s not clear how old she is, but I would guess she’s at least 30 years his junior, maybe more. She says she’s a grandmother, but I still don’t see her being as romantically interested so quickly with a 90-year-old. It’s good that she’s not ageist, but, the film didn’t bridge the gap as to why she would fall in love with him so easily and so quickly, based on very little. Eastwood also has a scene where Rafo’s mother makes sexual advances on Mike. Rafo’s mother has got to be 50 years his junior. The scene could be a comedic one. If so, that’s fine, but if we’re to take seriously her sexual advances, he’s putting a physical appeal on himself that did exist when he was younger but arguably has faded.
However, the true relationship into which we become invested is that between Mike and Rafo, as well as Rafo’s rooster, Macho. In that, the film explores the theme of what it means to be “macho” or strong in terms of masculinity. I think the film does so in a refreshing way and in a way that at times subverts what has been the traditional representations of macho or masculinity. For example, in that scene between Mike and Rafo’s mother, Mike could have accepted her sexual advances and gone to bed with her, but he doesn’t. Mike goes to underground cockfighting. Yet, we don’t actually see the cockfighting. For all the toughness and grit that Eastwood naturally brings to the role, he also allows for Mike to be vulnerable and even shed a few tears, proving that even at 90, he’s still a good actor.
Yes, this is a road trip film that is very much in line with others of its type. Shepherding a boy across a desert landscape with a parental figure having sent a goon to chase after, I was reminded of The Wizard (1989). A story about an aging cowboy as it were having to transport a teenager to safety, I was also reminded of News of the World (2020). Helena Zengel’s performance in that 2020 film as the teenager was more effective and affecting than Minett’s. It’s funny because the ending of News of the World was the same ending as Nash’s novel, but Eastwood changes it here, which perhaps undercuts the relationship built between Mike and Rafo.
The chunk of this film where Mike is falling in love with Marta and vice-versa, along with her remaining family, felt akin to the recent Stillwater (2021). However, the happy ending one might have wanted in that film is achieved here. It’s also a strange film to come from a filmmaker who is conservative, right-leaning and presumably very patriotic. At one point, he has a character express that life in Mexico is better than life in Texas and thus the United States. Stillwater is about a father who abandons his life in America for life in a foreign country. Here, Mike essentially does the same. Either film doesn’t make much too much judgment on either countries, but it’s just interesting to see Eastwood embrace that ending.
Rated PG-13 for language and themes.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 44 mins.
Available in theaters and on HBO Max.