Given that this is Clint Eastwood‘s first starring role in six years (his last being 2012’s under-the-radar sports drama The Trouble With the Curve), one would be forgiven for expecting something far more grand and notable than what is ultimately on offer; its push into prime Oscar season releases not helping matters either.
Whilst this is far from the worst thing Eastwood has helmed (The 15:17 To Paris says hello), it’s certainly secondary to what he is capable of. A comfortable, middle-ground effort, The Mule at least allows Eastwood to showcase his innate ability as a performer to successfully execute a complicated role. His Earl Stone (based loosely off World War II veteran Leo Sharp who became a drug courier for the Sinaloa Cartel) is an unlikeable character, to say the least. Happy to skip the wedding of his own daughter (real-life daughter Alison Eastwood in a small supporting role) to tend to his flowers (it’s made clear during the film’s opening how important horticulture is to his being), Earl isn’t Eastwood attempting character pleasantry.
But it’s perhaps because of his character’s faults and outdated mentality (he sees no harm in using racist or homophobic terms to the respective minorities) that his ultimate story arc is as interesting as it is. Had he been somewhat nice, The Mule may have been even less-so as an overall product; it should be noted though that Nick Schenk‘s script (taking inspiration from Sam Dolnick’s New York Time Article detailing Leo Sharp’s late-in-life career as a drug runner) invites the audience to mock Earl’s archaic view rather than merely accept it.
The drug runs are initially void of much excitement, at least from an audience point-of-view. On the verge of losing his home, and with no strong family connection to tether to (save for Taissa Farmiga as his naive granddaughter), Earl accepts a one-time offer to drive an unknown heft of drugs through Illinois for a Mexican drug cartel. Due to his advanced age, clean criminal record and strict driving regime, he’s deemed unworthy of suspicion and thus entrusted with larger-than-usual drug quantities, which in turn earns him equally large cash payments. These initial scenes don’t go beyond much other than watching Eastwood amusingly humming a song of sorts as he drives to his intended destination before picking up his cash envelope. We rinse and repeat this sequence in between learning of his well-intentioned cash spends to the local community and his attempts to mend fences with his family; Dianne Weist has a few tender, if melodramatic moments as his long-suffering ex-wife.
It isn’t until Andy Garcia‘s charismatic kingpin Laton becomes a fixture that the film starts to feel remotely dangerous for Earl, but even then it’s the slew of stereotypically tattooed henchmen that provide the real threat as Earl’s escalating jobs indicate he’s a permanent employee, and in being so should respect that he’s no longer truly a free man. These latest jobs conjoin with The Mule‘s parallel plot strand focusing on Bradley Cooper and Michael Pena‘s DEA agents Bates and Trevino who are attempting to narrow down on the Cartel’s deliveries, blind to the fact that the seemingly harmless old-timer they often cross paths with is their very target.
Though the story itself is rife with the suitable ingredients to churn out an actioner of sorts, Eastwood has opted for something a little more grounded. This could potentially turn away viewers hoping for something more exciting than the dramatic crime film The Mule settles as. There’s nothing particularly wrong with adhering to the conventions of that genre but there’s so little ultimate freshness presented here that it’s difficult to muster much enthusiasm, especially for a film from someone as prolific as Eastwood.
TWO AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
The Mule is screening in Australian theatres from January 24th 2019.