I’ve been cynical about Clint Eastwood’s last couple decades as a filmmaker. My review of The Mule expressed what I had to say about that. My tepid, but generally positive, review of Richard Jewell gave him a little more (qualified) credit as an aged storyteller who, at the least, knows how to shoot a script clearly and cast a production well. Cry Macho, written by Nick Schenk and based on the 1975 novel by N. Richard Nash, is a story Eastwood first approached in the late 1980s, but passed on in favor of the Dirty Harry sequel The Dead Pool. Over the years, he said he wasn’t quite old enough to play the aged and worn-down ex-rodeo star Mike Milo.

Now, at 91, it seems he felt it was time. Cry Macho isn’t a particularly good movie. Most of the performances are subpar, and it’s told with all the drama and urgency of a tired grandparent trying to relay something but never quite getting to the point. We love our grandparents, though, and despite his flaws, it’s hard not to love Eastwood and his commitment to filmmaking. He remains one of the last working links to multiple eras of cinema that feel increasingly distant. He won’t let himself become a relic and with Macho takes a turn away from the gruffness of his persona into something softer and more poignant. Eastwood, and our feelings about him, make this a comforting watch.

The story follows Milo, a recovered alcoholic and addict who once broke his back falling off a horse, as he travels to Mexico to retrieve the estranged son of his former boss to bring him home. Howard (Dwight Yoakam) was a hell of a boss but also Milo’s only friend. Despite his flaws, Milo agrees to help him. Howard’s son, Rafael (Eduardo Minett), is a rough kid with a good heart and a fighting chicken named Macho. After a pretty boring expository journey, the two set out northward for the United States with Macho in the back seat. They run into all sorts of trouble but also find love and acceptance with a small family run by Leta (Fernanda Urrejola), a grandmother with whom Milo strikes up a flirtation.

Yes, there’s nonagenarian romance in Cry Macho, although it does follow a beautiful woman offering herself to Eastwood earlier in the film due to an awkward misunderstanding. The sexual politics of Eastwood’s later films have often been a source of debate in film circles — most recently the depiction of reporter Kathy Scruggs in Richard Jewell — but for the most part, everything in this one is pretty sweet, particularly compared to the source material, which sees Leta painfully burned in a fire that never happens here. Thank goodness. Eastwood’s film introduces Leta for the purpose of giving Milo something pure and good after the tragedy of his life. It’s classical, good-hearted Western storytelling with a broad brush.

That good beating heart is what makes this one feel a bit different than the past decade of Eastwood’s films and succeed despite not being particularly great. His depiction of Milo, and the world Milo inhabits, is largely devoid of the ingrained biases that informed more recent projects. Those stories have often been about righteous men who learn a lesson but are not, on balance, necessarily shown as flawed. I write more about that in previous reviews. By comparison, Eastwood certainly plays Milo as cranky — with a few choice lines that I’m sure will get play on clickbait sites — but ultimately as a man who again wants to love something, who has found himself toward the end of the line and decided the answer is to open himself up again rather than doubling down on the bad habits that made him miserable. One of Eastwood’s ex-partners once said that he, as a man, knows exactly who he is and doesn’t like himself (in relation to his rampant womanizing and other bad traits). Cry Macho is Eastwood as audiences want to remember him.

There’s no telling if this is Eastwood’s final film. I wouldn’t bet on it, especially if he can help it. For many, though, this might be the film they turn to when he inevitably passes away for reassurance that in the later years of his life, deep down, beneath the awkward political messaging, yelling at chairs and sometimes regressive storytelling in his later films, Eastwood was still able to embody something unique about the spirit of American film, that he could still be who we needed him to be.