Clint Eastwood needed to redeem himself for “The 15:17 to Paris,” his disastrous directorial effort from earlier this year where he cast real-life thwarters of a terrorist attack instead of professional actors to tell their story. I’m usually patronizing bad actors when I say that maybe their talents lie elsewhere, but in the case of that movie, I know for a fact that its leads excel in other, more important areas, so I don’t feel too bad saying that they should have stuck to being heroes and saving lives. The good news is that Eastwood has indeed achieved that much-needed redemption with “The Mule.”
Eastwood stars as Earl Stone, a horticulturist who has fallen on hard times. His business is eaten alive by the internet, he’s living out of his truck, and his wife (Dianne Wiest) and daughter (Alison Eastwood) hate him. After Earl gets kicked out of his granddaughter’s bridal shower, one of the guests offers him work shipping items across the country. Shocker of shockers, he’s being enlisted to work as a drug mule. He’s initially hesitant to break the law and get into business with shady cartel types, but the money is enough to risk prison or worse. He makes a number of runs, getting better and better at the job every time. Soon he’s good friends with his new colleagues and gets invited to the mansion of the big boss (Andy Garcia).
Meanwhile, DEA agent Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper) wants to make a big splash so that his boss (Laurence Fishburne) will promote him out of his miserable Chicago office. He and his partner (Michael Peña) set out to recover some major product and make a bunch of arrests. They choose to focus on the shipping aspects of the drug trade, which of course puts him on a collision course with Earl. But he doesn’t know that Earl is the person he’s pursuing, and a 90-year-old who follows all traffic laws is not exactly a prime suspect, which is why the cartel likes using him so much. Earl is more wily and alert than he appears, and he is not only to give Bates the slip, but is actually able to carry on a conversation with the agent without him knowing that he’s talking to his target.
Much of the movie just concerns the little adventures Earl has on his drug runs. He makes a friend here, he eats a sandwich there. The movie is actually a lot more pleasant than the tense trailers make it look. Yes, there is some escalation as Earl gets in deeper with the cartel, which is undergoing a deadly restructuring, but the first two thirds of the film is mostly about Earl having a dangerous sort of fun that he never know he had in him. There are tears too, as Earl makes a long-overdue effort to reconnect with his family, especially his wife, who is in her final days. Have your hankies ready for when she falls seriously ill.
“The Mule” is a movie that operates in the “perfectly good” zone. Everything is well-written and well-acted, save for perhaps some scenes where Earl’s wife and daughter forcedly jump down his throat with an unrealistic disregard for how they look to their immediate company. At the same time, it’s missing a certain grandness that would make it an awards contender even though it’s opening in the midst of awards season. But I recommend seeing this movie anyway, as it’s an engaging watch and a worthy entry into Eastwood’s filmography.
“The Mule” is rated R for language throughout and brief sexuality/nudity. Its running time is 116 minutes.
Robert R. Garver is a graduate of the Cinema Studies program at New York University. His weekly movie reviews have been published since 2006.