Movie review: The Mule

Clint Eastwood returns as another gruff old man, this time caught up in drug smuggling

The Mule (Pašerák)
Directed by Clint Eastwood
With Clint Eastwood, Bradley Cooper, Laurence Fishburne, Michael Peña, Dianne Wiest, Andy García

A ninety-year-old former traveling flower salesman who hasn’t kept up with the times finds himself in need of money. He is offered a job just driving back and forth across the US. There is a catch, though. His new bosses are a drug cartel.

Clint Eastwood, now 88 years old, returns as both director and star in The Mule, loosely based on a true story. It is a big comeback from his previous film, The 15:17 to Paris, a gimmicky tale about a foiled terrorist incident on a train. Eastwood hasn’t starred in one of his own films since Trouble With the Curve, in 2012.

The Mule’s main asset is Eastwood’s persona. The story itself is incredibly simple, with very few plot twists or unexpected developments. Eastwood plays Earl Stone, a horticulturalist who spent more time on his flowers than on his family. Only his granddaughter, Ginny (Taissa Farmiga) talks to him.

His daughter, Iris (Alison Eastwood), and ex-wife, Mary (Dianne Wiest), humiliate him for being a failure at both business and domestic life.

Stone is a bit like Eastwood’s character in Gran Torino, both are Korean War veterans who still have a 1950s’ outlook on the world, trying to fit in and even be helpful but often using outdated language. In The Mule, for example, he encounters a lesbian motorcycle group and seems surprised by the idea, but still offers unsolicited advice on what the engine problem is and tries to show some old-fashioned politeness.

Much of the film’s running time is simply made up Stone driving and singing to himself as he crosses from New Mexico to Chicago, sometimes on his own, and other times accompanied by minders from the cartel. Stone stops where he pleases, straying from his assigned route, causing tension with his cartel bosses.

It is rather repetitive, but at the same time relaxing. By the third of fourth run, the audience simply has to give in and sit back for the ride.

At the same time, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is cracking down on drugs in Chicago. Agent Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper) and his partner (Michael Peña) follow leads to a mule called Tata, while the agent in charge (Laurence Fishburne) pressures them for results.

In real life, Eastwood is known for his right-wing political views. What is most surprising in The Mule is the amount of humanity that Eastwood as director shows in the members of the drug cartel. A few are seen a viscous killers, but the majority are shown as fairly ordinary people who at first tolerate Stone and then are slowly won over by his positive attitude and charisma.

The DEA agents, on the other hand, are far less developed. We learn little about Bates and his partner. They come off a bit less sympathetic, blackmailing people into cooperating and being more concerned with results that look good rather than results that are effective.

By this point in his career, Clint Eastwood plays basically just one character, the gruff man who is not as bad as he seems. Eastwood as a Robin Hood drug smuggler is a bit of a revelation, a truly unexpected variation on the get-off-my-lawn figure.

The film has other assets, such as a strong role for Dianne Wiest and several other aging actors. Eastwood’s own daughter, Alison, plays his daughter in the film and the audience can see some real father-daughter emotion on screen. The cinematographer and technical aspects are also above average.

But it is really a one-man show from someone who no longer needs to prove anything to anyone. Eastwood, like his character, is simply doing as he pleases and doesn’t care if anyone likes it or not.

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