Clint Eastwood enlists some regular collaborators to deliver a charming if sometimes awkward factually-based drama in The Mule.
Much better than last year’s The 15:17 To Paris, The Mule has him directing himself for the first time since Gran Torino in 2008 and indeed acting at all since 2012. and while there are jarring sequences and clunky bits here, he’s still most amiable. And yes, even if he is playing a bit of a failure – and a naïve one at that.
In Peoria, Illinois, back in 2005 we meet his Earl Stone, a 90 year old horticulturalist and Korean War veteran who’s alienated from his family and would rather attend a flowery convention to flirt with the ladies than show up at the wedding of his daughter Iris (played by Eastwood’s own daughter Alison). A weird chronological leap then has him facing financial ruin and making an embarrassing scene at a pre-wedding party held for his now-grown-up granddaughter Ginny (Taissa Farmiga from American Horror Story)
It’s here that Earl meets a dodgy friend-of-a-friend who suggests he “do some driving”, and Earl goes to the correct place, is nice to the right guys, makes the drop and is paid handsomely, all of which is so deceptively smooth that it takes until his third run before he realises (duh!) that he’s carrying many, many kilograms of cocaine for a cartel. By the time of his fifth run he’s using the money to reconcile with his family and impressing cartel boss Laton (Andy Garcia), but he’s still assigned ‘handlers’ who think he’s a silly old fool. But no matter, as he eventually wins them over, partially to the tune of Dean Martin’s Ain’t That A Kick In The Head.
While all this is taking place, the other narrative thread has DEA agent Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper from Clint’s American Sniper) starting at the Chicago branch, being welcomed by an unnamed Special Agent (Laurence Fishburne from Clint’s Mystic River) and being partnered with Trevino (Michael Peña from Clint’s Million Dollar Baby). It’s obvious that they’re all going to eventually catch Earl, and that it’ll take a while for the very reasons that the cartel intended (who would ever think a 90 year old geezer would be a drug mule?), and yet this is still not especially suspenseful, as we cut back and forth and they slowly close in. After all, Clint and his screenwriter Nick Schenk (who also penned the harsher, angrier Gran Torino) are less interested in thriller-type mechanics and more willing to study Earl himself, a man who wants to make amends after messing up his life and gets in way, way over his head.
Eastwood (who turns 89 this year) just keeps on making movies of all types and offering a veritable jumble of themes and messages, and yet this is one of his strongest and least politicised outings since he hit 80, despite some scenes veering towards being straight up average. And yet he’s a living legend, and his legion of fans will be happy to excuse him even if there are moments here when he’s flogging a dead mule.
The Mule (M) is in cinemas now