2.5 out of 5 stars.
Clint Eastwood is one of the most prolific and talented filmmakers out there, but he, like anyone else, has his fair share of hits and misses. “The Mule,” Eastwood’s latest directorial effort as well as the first film he’s acted in since 2012, lands somewhere in the middle. Based on the true story of Leo Sharp, a World War II veteran who became a drug mule for a Mexican drug cartel when he was in his eighties, the film is entertaining enough, but tries too hard to seek redemption for a protagonist who clearly doesn’t deserve it.
For the film, Sharp’s name is changed to Earl Stone (Eastwood), a Korean war veteran and former horticulturist who is estranged from his family and has fallen on hard times. He unwittingly becomes a driver for a cartel to make some extra cash, but when he sees how much money he has made, and how he can use that money to not only solve his financial problems, but also feel more loved and appreciated, one run becomes two, three, four, and so on. Soon Earl has worked his way up to become one of the cartel’s top mules, able to haul truckloads of cocaine across the country with no one bothering to suspect a frail old white man of doing any harm. But changes in the cartel leadership soon threaten Earl, as does the DEA, as special agent Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper) and his team closes in on him.
“The Mule” explores similar themes to other late Eastwood projects, predominately growing old in a changing world—a world that doesn’t seem to be changing for the better. The internet had a hand in putting Earl out of business, and he expresses derision for the younger generation that can’t seem to do anything without consulting their phones first. Eastwood is good in the role; Earl isn’t a tough guy like what we’re used to seeing from him, but rather an affable old man who sings Motown hits in the car and maintains his easygoing nature even when a gun is being pointed at him. But that’s precisely where the film runs into one of its main problems: it tries to paint Earl as a likeable guy, but he isn’t. For one thing, he’s racist, a fact that the film doesn’t try to hide. Of course racial stereotypes are going to come into play in the film; after all, he’s working with a Mexican gang out of Midwestern America. But the film takes it unnecessarily, puzzlingly, far, like in one scene, when Earl pulls over to help a black family stranded on the side of the road with a flat tire. Earl refers to them as “Negros;” when they say they prefer the word black, “or just people,” Earl just kind of scoffs before the scene cuts away. Other scenes such as one in which Earl rescues his Mexican cohorts from a confrontation with a police officer by saying that they are movers he hired for cheap are played for laughs. Law enforcement isn’t innocent either; while scoping out members of the drug cartel agent Bates says that the bar they are spying on looks like the “Star Wars cantina.” The movie doesn’t make a big statement on race; if anything, it appears to favor a world where these stereotypes do still exist, and that all people aren’t just people. These statements just kind of hang there, casting a nasty pall over the entire film.
The other reason why Earl isn’t a likeable protagonist goes back to his estrangement from his family. We see from the very beginning of the film that he has always put work before family, even missing his daughter’s (Alison Eastwood) wedding to attend a flower show, resulting in her not speaking to him for 12 years. But as the film comes to its conclusion, and Earl makes run after run and starts seeing his family a little bit more, he suddenly begins to have regrets, and they let him back into their lives so easily. It’s a happier resolution than this character deserves, one that comes about too easily and suddenly.
And while Eastwood gives a good performance here—his weathered face and shuffling gait gives his character a lot of personality without him even saying a word—the other characters are reduced to shallow stereotypes, particularly the DEA agents played by normally great actors Cooper, Michael Peña, and Laurence Fishburne (although Dianne Wiest does have some great scenes as Earl’s ex-wife Mary). The script employs an interesting combination of tension and dark humor that sometimes works, mostly doesn’t, but does at least result in a film that holds the viewer’s interest. But most of the film’s positives are negated by the fact that Earl’s redemption isn’t earned—and that the film wants us to cheer for the kind of guy that, especially with all that is happening in the world today, deserves to be booed off screen.
Runtime: 116 minutes. Rated R.