It’s not something we don’t all already know. But what a remarkable career Clint Eastwood has had not only as an actor but as a director. From his first film as a director “Play Misty For Me” in 1971 through “Unforgiven” (1992), “Mystic River” (2003), “Million Dollar Baby” (2004), “Flags of our Fathers/Letters from Iwo Jima” (2006) and “Sully” (2016), to name just some of the highlights. It would take days to talk Eastwood’s career.
Clint Eastwood is back in his first credited acting role since “Trouble with the Curve” in 2012, and his first time since “Gran Torino” in 2008 (10 years ago), that he both acted in and directed a film. This makes his newest starring, producing and directing film “The Mule”, his 40th feature behind the camera and gajillionth in front of it. After spending the last few years, just as filmmaker/actor Peter Berg was. Eastwood had filmed a trilogy of heroism with his biggest box office success “American Sniper”, “Sully” and “The 15:17 to Paris”.
“The Mule” is a star vehicle for 88 year old actor/director Clint Eastwood who is in nearly every scene and who can still command the screen. The movie was inspired by the story of Leo Sharp (whose name has been changed to Earl Stone for the film). A World War II veteran in his late 80s who became the world’s oldest and most prolific drug mule for the Sinaloa Cartel.
I’m not sure how accurate of a depiction Eastwood’s Earl is to the real Leo. As he is shown to like a strong drink, enjoys a pulled pork sandwich, loves to tell corny jokes, spurts out racist comments without really knowing it and he’s such a ladies’ man that he has two threesomes. Man this guy knows how to party and have fun! That’s not all. Earl lives life on the edge because he has become the top courier (“a Mule”), for a branch of the Mexican drug cartel, regularly delivering packages in excess of 100 plus kilos of cocaine within the States.
As a drug mule he was deemed a “legend,” as a law enforcement official had put it in the New York Times Magazine article, by Sam Dolnick that serves as the basis for the film.
He didn’t start out this way though. He was a decorated World War II veteran who was a rockstar in the day lilies and flower growing business. He even won several awards for being a horticulturist. Eastwood zips through his gardening life and gives most of his focus of when Earl becomes “The Mule”. He is directed to pick up a duffel bag or two or three and drive to a designated location hundreds of miles away, disappear for an hour and return to his truck, with the drop off gone and an envelope filled with cash in the glove compartment.
Even though he is given instructions to each drop he makes by big scary but friendly (hey they care for the elderly!) Mexicans. Who are depicted in a stereotypical fashion with AK-47’s and shaved heads and neck tats. Earl seems to not even care that these guys are asking him to transport these duffel bags. He just does the job and wants to get paid. It takes Earl a while to get snoopy and realize he’s transporting massive amounts of drugs. Come on Earl, did you think these guys had you transporting baked goods? But even after he learns the truth, Earl keeps on mulin’, because hey he loves to drive state to state while singing to his mix tape featuring Spiral Starecase, Dean Martin and conveniently listening to “On The Road Again” by good ole Willie Nelson.
Plus it’s great money. More than he would be making planting and selling flowers. He gets so deep in the cash he dishes out his earnings for good causes, including using it to add some serious flash to his game. That’s not all. He spends his money freely on bar tabs, a wedding, the reopening of a VFW, and a sleek truck for himself, but nobody stops to question (except his ex-wife) the good fortune of a man who, just days prior, was about to live his remaining days on the streets.
Meanwhile, in Chicago, Laurence Fishburne is a DEA supervisor who is taking heat from headquarters and pressures his top undercover agents (coming straight off his award winning “A Star Is Born” Bradley Cooper and “End Of Watch” star Michael Pena) to deliver a major bust ASAP. With the help of an informant, the agents over the course of the film begin to close in on the mysterious mule. But how can no one spot these agents as they sit in a crowded parking lot in a sleek, jet black, clean as a whistle giant Dodge Ram truck with a made at Fed Ex Office decal sign reading “Larry’s Hardware” on the doors.
We then take two or three detours to Mexico to drop in on a cartel kingpin played by Andy Garcia, who lives the life of a 70’s Hugh Hefner, complete with an entire compound, scantily clad beauties lounging around grinding on each other and having parties every night. When he skeet shoots, he uses a gold-plated shotgun and encourages his employees to applaud his marksmanship. Like Earl he sounds fun! The two should get together and hangout, you imagine the fun to be had?
Eastwood’s direction is pure Eastwood as he once again directs with elegance and efficiency. But the script from Nick Schenk, who also scripted “Gran Torino”, doesn’t give its gifted cast of actors much to work with. It feels repetitive in a good chunk of the film. Schenk gives Eastwood one liners that are funny but sometimes feels awkward and makes you feel bad if you laugh. On paper and from the way the trailer was cut it seemed it was destined to be a rich and gripping grown-up drama, but it ends up feeling pretty tame. I wonder what kind of direction it would have taken when Ruben Fleischer (“Venom” and “Gangster Squad”) was originally set to direct the movie. “The Mule” grapples with several of Eastwood’s preferred themes that you can find over the course of his legendary career. Including regret, forgiveness and mortality.
“The Mule” doesn’t out do some of Eastwood’s best work, but there is great stuff here. Bradley Cooper’s DEA agent, is on the lookout for “The Mule” and stops an upstanding Latino driver who articulates his nervousness: “Statistically, these are the most dangerous five minutes of my life”, the driver pleads. Even though he’s not mistreated, the few seconds of this rattled bystander struggling with his seatbelt afterward is the kind of detail about today’s America that few filmmakers telling a crime story would have even bothered showing. At 1 hour 57 minutes it feels much longer and could use some slight trimming. “The Mule” isn’t up to par with his best like “Gran Torino”, “Letters From Iwo Jima”, “Mystic River”, “Million Dollar Baby” or even “Bridges Of Madison County”. But it’s an improvement over his last two films “15:17 To Paris” and “Sully”. At 88 he is the oldest living filmmaker and actor. As an actor his energy is not what it use to be but he still has that one of a kind Eastwood charm and intensity. As a filmmaker his work is still distinctive and his vision is still all his own.
GRADE: ★★★ OUT OF ★★★★★