The Mule review

At 88, Clint Eastwood remains a steadfast, no-nonsense filmmaker, and The Mule doesn’t show him changing in his twilight years. Inspired by a true story, this new film is equally no-nonsense, which here means that it’s unambiguous in its character arc and development, rote in its depiction of the Mexican drug cartels, and unwilling to dive deep into its eponymous character. No doubt, with Eastwood mostly staying behind the camera these days, The Mule is notable for featuring the Man with No Name as the lead of this new project. But it’s a passable effort at best.

Eastwood plays Earl Stone, a champion daylily grower in Peoria, Illinois. When the film begins, it’s 2005 and while his adult daughter is about to get married, Earl chooses to spend time at a daylily convention, even as the film implies that he’s fully aware of where else he could be. Cut to 2017, and Earl’s house is going into foreclosure at the same time that his now-grown granddaughter (Taissa Farmiga) is getting hitched, and hoping for him to help out with paying for the ceremony. Instead of admitting defeat, Earl is given a tip that he can get paid a lot of money just for driving around. You see, Earl’s been a cautious driver his whole life; coupled with his urgent need for cash, that makes him a perfect candidate to be a local cartel’s new drug mule. But his talents soon draw the attention of a DEA agent (Bradley Cooper), even as he grows richer.

The film’s title aside, it takes a little longer than you might think for the screenplay by Nick Schenk (who previously wrote the heinous Eastwood picture Gran Torino) to confirm the obvious: Earl’s sojourns from Chicago to El Paso are ways for a cartel to transfer large shipments of cocaine. If you, for example, drove your car into a nondescript tire shop on a tip about being able to earn cash by driving, and were greeted by intimidating guys with machine guns who warn you to not be late to your destination, and to definitely not look at the bag in the back of your car…well, you might have a couple questions. But not Earl. It takes Earl until his third cross-country trip to let curiosity get the best of him. (And when he sees what cargo he’s carrying, Earl looks legitimately surprised. What else would the guns have been for? Decoration?)

Earl, in short, does not ask questions, in the same way that this film doesn’t ask them. From the prologue, it’s made thuddingly obvious through the wincing dialogue that Earl’s arc will be a realization that he’s sacrificed a good life with his family over the years in favor of his work. Or perhaps it’s in favor of being beloved for his charm. One of the more unexpected elements of The Mule is that Earl is seen as a truly lovable rogue by just about everyone else, from Cooper’s DEA agent to cartel heavies (including one played by Andy Garcia) to the many beautiful women who find his grandfatherly, winking looks quite the turn-on. On one hand, by the film’s end, Earl may yet realize that his family is the most valuable thing in his life. On the other, he only grasps that lesson after, among other things, multiple threesomes. (If only that were a joke. It’s not.)

Unlike Eastwood’s earlier film this year, The 15:17 to Paris, there’s an impressive cast working alongside the elder statesman. Cooper is as close to a second lead as you get, along with Garcia, Laurence Fishburne and Michael Pena as fellow DEA agents, and Dianne Wiest as Earl’s ex-wife. Perhaps the most notable choice of casting is that of Alison Eastwood, the director/star’s real-life daughter, who plays Earl’s legitimately angry daughter here. The metatextual element of the director casting his own daughter in a fractious relationship is a nicer twist than what actually transpires in Schenk’s script, especially since the script almost tacitly refuses to explore why Earl would so frequently ignore his family.

Clint Eastwood has a few standby hallmarks when he makes a new movie. Two of the obvious ones are that he rarely, if ever, asks for rewrites on the scripts he directs, and that he rarely, if ever, asks actors to do a second take if the first one didn’t have any obvious gaffes. With The 15:17 to Paris, it’s hard to imagine that multiple takes or a rewrite would’ve helped a feature that had no functional story or reason for existence. With The Mule, though the cast is more than qualified, there’s a sense of the whole thing being perfunctory. Eastwood, even at his elder age, is charming enough to watch, in the way that watching your grandfather tell some raunchy jokes with wildly inappropriate language can be charming. But just about everyone else here, working with a shaky script and on the first take, struggles to make it seem natural. The Mule is passable, and arguably Clint Eastwood’s best film in over a decade. But it’s also another example of a film that could’ve been more entertaining if it wasn’t the first draft.

/Film Rating: 5 out of 10

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About the Author

Josh Spiegel is a Phoenix-based critic & writer. He's one of the hosts of Mousterpiece Cinema, a podcast about Disney films. He's also written a book of criticism on Pixar, titled Yesterday is Forever: Nostalgia and Pixar Animation Studios.