Clint Eastwood’s The Mule, is a good movie, but not a great one. At times it’s even a bad one, riddled with elementary mistakes you’d think one of Hollywood’s most prolific, acclaimed and badass directors would have squashed early in the process. The Mule marks Eastwood’s 38th directorial effort – and his second this year, following The 15:17 to Paris, with reports having this movie hurried into production only late this summer, meaning it was filmed, edited, scored and released to the public in less than six months.
The Mule is largely based on Sam Dolnick’s The New York Times’ 2014 article “The Sinaloa Cartel’s 90-Year-Old Drug Mule”, though a better term would be “inspired by” as screenwriter Nick Schenk (Gran Turino) extracts the most salient bits of the true-life saga of Leo Sharp, who was 94 years-old when D.E.A agents finally ended his unbelievably successful latterday career as one of the Mexican cartel’s most prolific drug mules. For his, Leo earned the Spanish nickname “Tata”, old man.
The Mule amalgamates much of Leo’s story into that of Earl Stone (Eastwood), the down-on-his luck horticulturist who stumbles into a late-stage career revival as a cartel drug mule. It’s an irresistible tale that demands cinematic treatment, and perfectly tailored for someone like Eastwood. Who better to haul massive amounts of cocaine cross-country than a grizzled old white veteran with a perfect driving record?
As the octogenarian Earl Stone the 88 years-old Eastwood is still every bit – every single bit – a genuine movie star, and perhaps some of our willingness to forgive some of the Mule’s more obvious missteps is due to our joy in watching him onscreen again, doing his thing like nobody else could. We feel the pain and embarrassment of an old man forced to begin again long after retirement called, though somehow still managing to find those moments that make life truly special. And, sometimes, those moments include the world’s best pulled pork sandwich – and a little booty.
I was genuinely flabbergasted when Earl visited the lavish home of his cartel boss, who invited his best muler to “partake” in some of the more, ahem, voluptuous fare on display. As both director and star, I’m curious if Eastwood knew his camera spent a little more time lingering on the booty than was truly necessary. And yet, I couldn’t look away – the execrable 1997 movie B*A*P*S featured a similar scene with the great Martin Landau getting down and dirty on the dance floor, though nothing here is that embarrassing.
Playing D.E.A. Agent Colin Bates, Bradley Cooper, whose presence in American Sniper helped Eastwood score his biggest ever box-office success, seems to appear here more as a favor to the director than for any anything. As one of the DEA’s rising stars he’ll stop at nothing to prove himself by tracking down the cartel’s most productive drug runner. Having both Eastwood and Cooper on the screen together was a real selling point, as were those oh-so-close moments where the two just miss each other often enough to keep the tension up.
We’ve seen this scenario play out time and time again in films like The Fugitive and Catch Me If You Can, a thrilling game of cat-and-mouse leading to the inevitable payoff. Cooper is fine, of course, and the few onscreen moments he shares with Eastwood bring home the fact these men have genuine affection for one another. As one of the only true actors you could legitimately call a “movie star” these days, I couldn’t help but think of how Cooper’s own directorial debut, A Star Is Born, has become one of the year’s biggest critical and commercial hits, and how we may be witnessing one of those rare passing of the baton moments.
Laurence Fishburne and Michael Peña put in performances that could only be called perfunctory, their only function seemingly to accompany Cooper’s efforts to catch the mysterious mule. Alison Eastwood, his real-life daughter playing his onscreen fictional daughter, does fine work. Nearly everyone is perfectly fine here, with one big exception.
Alas, that award goes to none other than poor Dianne Wiest, a fine actress who’s spent the better part of the last decade toiling away in syndicated television. As Earl’s long-suffering ex-wife she’s forced to do little more than regurgitate huge amounts of narration in embarrassingly trite fashion. Real people don’t go about talking like this, dumping exposition to fill us – the audience – in on what we already know. Her later appearance somewhat redeems her early performance, but it’s not laudable to stand out in a movie for all the wrong reasons.
Much of the cast is straight out of central casting, a cliched expression for a cliched group of scary and sweet Latino actors that visually serve their purpose as Earl’s handlers. Keep an eye out for Andy García having a ball playing the forward-thinking cartel boss who takes a liking to Earl, perhaps as a rebuke to a younger generation of drugs and thugs who lack the old-timer’s work ethic.
Much of the problems with The Mule lay with a script that feels entirely contrived, yearning to be Breaking Bad but settling for Archie Bunker. Much like with Eastwood’s last starring-directorial smash hit, Gran Turino, Nick Schenk attempts to reconcile the fading influence of a (white) generation that was promised security in their golden years, only to have their world ripped from under them.
The film opens with Earl, the successful and award-winning horticulturist, employing Mexican workers to truck his prized daylilies for him; it’s not long before their roles are reversed. When Earl attempts to share his old-timey wisdom to one of his handlers, he’s quickly brushed off, reminded of the failures that brought him to his current situation. “That’s why you work for us now.”
The film also glosses over some of Eastwood character’s seedier traits, possibly as they’d sour us to liking such an obviously flawed individual. We’re meant to see Earl’s good nature shine through his misdeeds, which are consciously never shown on screen. He buys back his foreclosed house from the bank, pays off his granddaughter’s wedding, even paying to repair a fire-damaged VFW club when insurance won’t so the Polka music can play on forever. He’s the drug mule with a heart of gold, using the spoils of his criminal activities to improve the lives of his friends and family.
But at no point do we ever see the effects of Earl’s successful muling on the addicts who, naturally, will continue ruining their own lives on the stuff. It’s easy to imagine a younger, more desolate Eastwood at least including a scene showing a drug overdose, or some individual blitzed out on the very poison he’s been lugging while singing to Sinatra tunes. We see Earl replace his dying old truck with a pricey upgrade, party it up with questionable ladies of the night, and even accessorize with some unmissable wrist bling. Discreet, he isn’t, which seems implausible given his newfound livelihood depends on him being invisible.
We accompany Early across an American landscape that’s in transition, both economically and culturally. One scene where Earl mistakes a group of hardcore bikers as “boys”, only to discover they’re actually a group of “Dykes on Bikes”, earns the film’s biggest laugh. It’s all played for whimsy, as is Earl’s casual racism towards Hispanics and blacks, the latter he still calls “Negroes” in a scene played for laughs when stopping to help a stranded family while on a drug run. This also highlights the generational differences between the old and young, one more dependable in practical matters, the other hopefully lost in their own tuned out world.
One of Eastwood’s biggest gifts as a storyteller is his uncanny instinct in finding interesting new angles with old tales; who else would have made a film about Nelson Mandela, Invictus, focus on the national importance of a rugby match? Nobody makes movies anymore quite like Eastwood, which is why even when executed with less precision than we’d like them to be, we can still benefit from a filmmaker not content to phone it in. Imagine struggling to describe exactly what type of movie The Mule is and not dance around the fact it’s, ultimately, a family drama about trucking cocaine cross-country, starring a casual racist with a taste for whores?
I’m going to speculate that, for many of Eastwood’s most devout fans, The Mule is going to be a real crowd pleaser, possibly the last chance they’ll have to see their hero on the screen and still in charge. The times are a changin’, and even trailers for The Mule feature the tagline “one last ride” with one of the true legends who’s earned the title. I only wish Eastwood would have chosen a better script to tell this story, or at least trimmed the fat. The Mule is also a lot funnier than you’d think the subject matter would allow, given the current opioid crisis strangling the Midwest. I wish we’d had a better version of this story, but there’s worse ways to spend an afternoon at the movies than with Clint.