Updated: Feb 7, 2020
Clint Eastwood is 88. He has not been seen onscreen in six years (he has directed four movies since then). He makes his return to acting in the based on fact drama The Mule, which he also produced and directed. The word that keeps coming to mind when thinking about this movie is “fine.” His performance is fine; his charisma and timing remain intact. His direction is fine; he still has a perfect sense of pacing and tone. The story is an interesting one, but somehow it fails to come alive. The drama never builds and the themes (family, regret, redemption), while hammered repeatedly, are not fully explored. Though I was pleasantly diverted for most of its 110 minute running time (minus the end credits), this is not one of Eastwood’s better works.
The Mule follows Earl Stone (Eastwood), a 90 year old man who has spent his life neglecting his family in favor of his work. After his farm is foreclosed on, he is offered an opportunity to transport a package cross-country for a large sum of money. He agrees and, before long, he is a regular drug mule for a Mexican cartel. This is intercut with a subplot about a DEA agent looking to make his name on a big bust.
This story is told methodically and without dramatic highpoints. Earl goes on several trips; sometimes something of note happens, sometimes nothing happens. Then he comes home and laments his wasted life. Individual scenes are good, as are the performances by a strong cast, but Eastwood never turns up the heat. It only scratches the surface when it seems like it has the potential to be so much more complex.
Part of the problem is that Earl does not seem to change. He talks about how he consistently disappointed his ex-wife and daughter, yet the movie opens the door slightly for him to be forgiven despite the fact he never really moves forward as a person. His granddaughter reaches out to him, he shows up a couple of times, and that is it. There are no grand gestures or big conversations. All of The Mule is like that. It is an understated movie that could have used the occasional statement.
Eastwood is alright as Earl, the role just does not have a lot of meat to it. It is a similar situation for the supporting cast as well, though the actors are skilled enough that the issue does not completely present itself at first. It includes Bradley Cooper, Michael Peña and Laurence Fishburne as DEA agents, Dianne Wiest as Earl’s ex-wife and Andy Garcia as the head of the cartel. The DEA stuff is half-baked. Cooper and Peña have good chemistry together as partners, however their operation feels unnecessary to the central plot. Andy Garcia has fun with a role that would have been more effective in a story that was actually about the drug trade. Wiest’s performance contains a lot of emotions, but the screenplay, by Nick Schenk, mostly avoids those.
It is nice to see Clint Eastwood back dealing with familiar themes. Watching him is like indulging in your favorite comfort food. Except this time, once you have finished eating, you are still hungry. I enjoyed the scenes with Earl on the road, showing how his experiences have unexpectedly prepared him for this job. The Mule has solid moments of entertainment that are reminiscent of some of the star’s many great films, but it does not have much substance. It is a totally fine, if underwhelming, production.
3 out of 5
Clint Eastwood as Earl Stone
Bradley Cooper as Colin Bates
Michael Peña as Trevino
Laurence Fishburne as DEA Special Agent
Dianne Wiest as Mary
Taissa Farmiga as Ginny
Alison Eastwood as Iris
Andy Garcia as Laton
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Screenplay by Nick Schenk