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The Mule has a number of moments where a 90-year-old stares at a computer or smartphone and grumbles ‘Internet’ and yet is still great.
Clint Eastwood directs and stars (his first leading role since 2012) as Earl Stone, a 90-year-old Korean War veteran and horticulturalist who loses his flower business. Divorced from his wife Mary (Dianne Wiest) and estranged from his daughter (Clint’s real-life progeny Alison Eastwood), he wishes to make amends by paying for his grand-daughter’s wedding. In order to do this, he finds himself smuggling drugs across US state lines for the Mexican cartel – capturing the attention of DEA Agent Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper).
The story of The Mule is so insane it would be unbelievable if it wasn’t true and adapted from the The New York Times article “The Sinaloa Cartel’s 90-Year-Old Drug Mule” by Sam Dolnick. In it, the journalist notes that cartel members deliberately recruited couriers who played against type. A DEA agent referring to the real life person on which Eastwood’s character is based remarked: “He is the perfect courier. He has a legitimate ID, he’s an older guy, he wouldn’t be pegged as a drug runner and he has no criminal history.”
Written by Gran Torino scribe Nick Schenk, The Mule certainly gets a lot of mileage out of the absurdity of the situation. Stone’s increasingly daring drug runs earn him the respect of a cartel boss played by a gold shotgun wielding Andy Garcia, who at one point rewards the 90-year-old with two escorts to bed. While this could leave viewers with a bad taste in their mouth, the movie dodges this – with a lot of Earl’s antics coming across as weirdly charming.
This is down to two reasons. Firstly, Eastwood and Schenk find a way to make Earl flawed but also very relatable. His problem – the one which led to the disintegration of his home life – is that he put work over family. As Mary notes, he was more interested in his flowers and the conventions and award shows that came with them, than her or their daughter. He is an old school silent generation type who believes hard work is what earns a family’s love, forgetting that being present is equally if not more vital.
Not only does he make this mistake as a middle aged man, his involvement in the Cartel is another example of this. Again, he thinks being a provider for his grand-daughter is the be all and end all – the key to his family’s affection. He is unaware he is falling into the same trap and that this time, its worse. Once one enters the drug business, it is extremely hard to leave.
In The Mule, each main character is struggling in some way to find the work-life balance. Bates – so focused on taking down a high ranking cartel member – neglects his wife. Meanwhile, Earl’s handler for the drug dealers, Julio (Ignacio Serricchio), is so devoted to his gang, because it is his warped de facto family – the people who took him off the streets.
The Mule could be Eastwood’s last movie and one senses this theme of work vs family was very important to the filmmaker. After all, The Man with No Name has been divorced twice and has consistently directed a movie every one or two years since 1971, starring in countless others at the same time. Perhaps, The Mule is Eastwood wrestling with his regret over his choices. While one could enjoy his latest as a straight geriaction thriller, a familiarity with Eastwood’s life does give the drama an extra heft and makes the inclusion of his real life daughter in the film all the more emotionally affecting.
The second reason The Mule is so charming is because it’s just terrific to see Eastwood onscreen again. Now 88 and not having been starring in movies of late, it is quite shocking to see how gaunt and fragile he looks even before he finds himself in the presence of gun-toting drug dealers – an element which adds a live-wire tension to those scenes. However, he still has a glimpse of the Dirty Harry no bullshit badassery in his eyes. Take for instance, the moment he gets a pistol pulled to his chest. He doesn’t even flinch.
It should be noted too that Cooper excels in projecting his character’s inherent decency – someone well-intentioned but on the cusp of making the same mistakes as Earl did at his age. Getting this emotional arc across in just a few scenes, it’s a very confident turn, almost like his character knows he has A Star is Born in the can.
Outside of these unique elevating elements, The Mule functions as a standard well-put together thriller. Eastwood is known to be an unfussy director who – like the similarly prolific Steven Soderbergh – shoots fast. This speedy turn around must have an impact on the end product as The Mule just zips along moving towards an inevitable but emotionally satisfying conclusion with sparse but explosive action scenes punctuating the drama in exciting ways.
If The Mule truly is a swan song for Eastwood, it is one worthy of his career and talents. However, this reviewer wouldn’t count the filmmaker out just yet. After all, we thought the same about Gran Torino.