A film review by Craig J. Koban December 26, 2018

THE MULE jj
½     

2018, R, 116 mins.

 

Clint Eastwood as Earl Stone  /  Bradley Cooper as Colin Bates  /  Taissa Farmiga as Ginny  /  Michael Peña as Enforcer  /  Laurence Fishburne as DEA Special Agent  /  Dianne Wiest as Mary  /  Alison Eastwood as Iris  /  Manny Montana as Axl

Directed by Clint Eastwood  /  Written by Nick Schenk and Dave Holstein

 

 

 

I find myself marveling at Clint Eastwood's prolific nature as a director over the last decade - at an extremely ripe 88-years-old - more so than I do at the overall quality of said films during that period.  

 

He's made six films since 2010, which is pretty remarkable in itself when one considers that the former Man With No Name has more than reached retirement home age.  I find his efforts to have been a mixed bag, for the most part, culminating with THE 15:17 TO PARIS from earlier this year, a woefully misguided fact based thriller that emerged as not only one of 2018's worst films, but also the most wrongheaded and undisciplined of Eastwood's storied career.  A return to form, as they say, is indeed warranted. 

This brings me to THE MULE, which is Eastwood's second film this year to take inspiration from a true story, in its case a New York Times article by Sam Dolnick about an eightysomething geriatric war veteran that became a drug runner - or "mule" - for a powerful Mexican drug cartel.  The premise alone seems to be a juicy one worthy of cinematic exploration, but what makes THE MULE even more enticing is that it brings Eastwood back in front of the camera as well, serving as his first starring vehicle since 2012's THE TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE.  If anything, the fact that we get to see an icon of Eastwood's indomitable stature return to the acting and directing rounds in the same picture is noteworthy enough to make this an event picture (it's not every day anymore than we get to see his famous squinty eyed mug dominate the silver screen).  Unfortunately, THE MULE's script never really gives Eastwood a fully fleshed out and intriguing character to play, not to mention that there's a genuine lack of dramatic urgency and tension on the storytelling front.  The film has Eastwood's trademark leisurely and understated style of economical filmmaking, but perhaps to its ultimate detriment.  THE MULE seems kind of too laid back and insubstantial for its own good.   

 

 

Still, there's a kernel of an intriguing tale to be had here, showing Eastwood play a divorced and down on his financial luck Illinois based horticulturist in his late 80s name Earl Stone, who's seen better and more stable days in his field, but modern advances in technology and online merchants have all but destroyed his once lucrative business.  With his shop closing down for good because of modern progress, the cantankerous and penniless Earl now faces a very uncertain future, which is complicated by his semi-estranged relationship that he has with his ex-wife (Dianne Wiest) and rest of his family.  They blame him for placing work ahead of everything else, leading to him missing key moments in all of their lives, and they may have a point.  As a father and husband, Earl has been a largely AWOL figure.   

Things change for Earl during a chance meeting he has with a fellow attendee at his granddaughter's engagement party, who quietly reveals to him - after he hears him boats of his spotless driving record - that he has connections to people that, in turn, are connected to a vast Mexican drug cartel that may be looking for a driver to deliver their goods between Chicago and El Paso...and not drawing a lot of attention along the way.  Accepting the job without much concern (more on that in a bit), Earl takes to his new position with relative ease (and without any knowledge of what he's transporting).  Within no time, Earl starts making a small fortune, but his fortunes change for the worse when he becomes ensnared with two DEA agents (Bradley Cooper and Michael Pena) and their obsessive mission to bring the cartel that Earl works for down, which would probably mean prison time for him as well. 

The screenplay by Nick Schenk is kind of sloppy here when it comes to obvious and glaring loopholes and the manner that it forces me to ask many questions about its own internal logic that frequently strains modest credulity.  Firstly, we are led to believe that Earl - a wily old ex-military man - would never once vet his new employers, nor question once what kind of product his running, especially when it's given to him by men wielding machine guns in a dark and secluded warehouse.  When he later snoops at his cargo during a late mission and discovers, to his horror, that it's cocaine you're left wondering whether Earl is a buffoon or hopelessly naive.  Then there's other questions regarding his newfound wealth and how he's publicly spending it, like, for example, loaning his veteran's hall thousands of dollars for a new makeover after a fire...or buying a new and very expensive new truck.  How no one manages to asks how a man approaching 90 has the money for such indulgences - even after he faces bankruptcy and no job prospects - is kind of befuddling.   

Again, it's a joy to see Eastwood acting in a film again (how many more times we'll have the opportunity going forward is debatable), and he certainly has the same sort of sly twinkle in his eyes that made many of his past and most legendary performances so memorable.  But Earl in THE MULE is simply not a very compelling character and is painted with the broadest of vague brushstrokes.  Eastwood, when it boils right down to it, is just playing another variation of the grumpy old rascal that he did to much better effect in GRAND TARINO, which leaves this character feeling derivative and disinteresting.  Plus, something needs to be said about the way this film plays up the casual racism of Earl as a source of petty laughs.  Even though, for example, Earl works for Mexicans, he seems to harbor stereotypical views of them, as well as black people (in one horribly awkward scene when he addresses a black family in need as helpless "Negroes.").  Now, the manner that he refers to minorities in dreadfully antiquated terms is, no doubt, stemming from his age and time he grew up in, but THE MULE sure thinks it's an amusing hoot to see Earl chuckle and name call these people.  Plus, the overall xenophobia in THE MULE is equally unsavory, seeing as it overwhelmingly paints Hispanics as gun-shooting and bloodthirsty drug dealers that are taking advantage of an elderly and frail man...and not much more.   

THE MULE also does its supporting characters no favors whatsoever either.  Bradley Cooper in particular - who teamed up with Eastwood previously to Oscar nomination glory for his role in AMERICAN SNIPER - seems horribly bored and stiff in the film as his DEA agent that's under pressure to stop drugs coming into American and make some much needed arrests.  Coming just a few months after his bravura turn of raw intensity and charisma in A STAR IS BORN, Cooper's work here in THE MULE appears borderline comatose by direct comparison, which is a real shame.  Cooper's and Eastwood's respective characters are unavoidably tied into the film's morally ambiguous themes, but the limp writing, Eastwood's far too casual direction, and the undercranked characters and performances never collectively dial into the inherent darkness of the premise.  By the time THE MULE fizzles out to a subdued conclusion, I was left feeling that everything building up to it was hollow and superficial.  

As a rare staring vehicle for Eastwood, THE MULE is worthy of a watch, I guess, for die hard fans of his, but I'm sure even his most devoted of followers will be probably dismayed at just how frail, thin, and raspy he has become as he approaches the winter of his life.  That's not to say that he isn't fun to watch in THE MULE, as we still get fleeting moments here and there that play up to his trademark rogue-like vigor.  In many ways, he's still the proverbial man and still has it.  But even his not-so-inconsiderable movie star presence is enough to save the pedestrian and dull THE MULE, which is a far cry removed better than THE 15:17 TO PARIS, but in hindsight that's not saying much.  Part of me wishes that Eastwood would stop aging and make movies forever.  Unfortunately, movies like THE MULE make me wish that he would just say "enough," jump up on his trusted steed, and ride off into the sunset and call it a career.  

And there would be no shame in that at all at this point. 

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