Earlier this year, I walked out of “The 15:17 to Paris” thinking Clint Eastwood could not have possibly directed that movie. His two previous films, “American Sniper” and “Sully”, were both knockouts. How could what I just watched have been so flat and lifeless?
Thankfully, Eastwood’s second 2018 release (he began principal photography in June) is much stronger. Though it doesn’t nearly match the impact of “Sniper” or “Sully”, “The Mule” is a quality, though straightforward character drama that showcases and honors the front-and-center, 88-year-old cinematic icon.
“The Mule” marks Eastwood’s first on-screen starring role since 2012’s “Trouble with a Curve” (a film he did not direct, though he and Amy Adams delivered excellent, underrated performances). He plays 90-year-old Earl Stone. When you get to be 90 (so I’ve been told) reflecting on one’s life is a common thing.
A Korean War vet and devoted horticulturalist, Stone chose work, travel and growing/showing his beloved lilies over being a legitimate husband and father. Now he fears it might be too late to reconnect with ex-wife (Dianne Wiest), daughter (played by Eastwood’s real-life daughter, Alison Eastwood) and granddaughter.
When an opportunity presents itself for Stone to earn some money – money he believes will allow him to make things right – he can’t turn it down. The stakes are raised when Stone discovers what it is he’s transporting from city to city in the back of his pick-up.
“The Mule” is inspired by a New York Times article about a real-life 87-year-old man who worked as a mule for a drug cartel. It’s a compelling story. Screenwriter Nick Schenk (who also penned Eastwood’s acclaimed 2008 “Gran Torino”) has concocted a simple script that’s easy to follow, especially for the target, older demo.
There are few surprises in “The Mule”. And not a whole lot of excitement. The tone is tepid throughout, with no intense (and instantly quotable) “Get Off My Lawn!” moments. But there’s something about Eastwood as this elderly everyman, fish-out-of-water that makes “The Mule” a worthwhile experience. After all these years, Eastwood still has the ability to make us empathize with his characters.
Bradley Cooper plays a federal DEA agent brought-in by the Chicago PD to generate drug busts. Cooper starred in “Sniper”, so he couldn’t pass-up the chance to work with Eastwood again, and share some screen time this time. Their second half scenes together are the highlights of “The Mule”. Michael Pena, as Cooper’s partner, Laurence Fishburne as their boss, and Andy Garcia as a Mexican drug lord, don’t add much depth.
“The Mule” is a subtly effective culmination of Eastwood’s career, with a throwback, old-school storytelling vibe. Eastwood has stated he doesn’t want this to be his final film. But if he ends-up changing his mind, it’s a fitting send-off.