The mule might well describe Clint Eastwood: stubbornly making his own kind of films despite his advancing years and increasingly old-fashioned tastes. This, his 37th film as director, shares DNA with some of his ’70s output in its casual racism, depiction of women as whores or angels, and a masculine value system based on virility.
Which could be dismissed as the whims of an iconic old-school star, or the real-life predilections of the subject of the film; either way, The Mule is an uncomfortable fit for the #TimesUp era. Based on co-scripter Sam Dolnick’s New York Times story about a granddad who became a cartel trafficker, the film follows the adventures of war vet and horticulturist Earl Stone (Eastwood).
With his worldly possessions stacked in his beat-up truck and a serious cash-flow problem preventing him giving his granddaughter the wedding he promised, a stranger’s offer of a driving job from El Paso to Chicago seems too good to pass up. Until he finds himself parked up in a dodgy garage, surrounded by gun-toting gang members and in possession of a burn phone. Even then, the penny doesn’t fully drop until he pulls up and takes a peek in one of the bags he’s shifting – just as a cop and his drug-sniffer dog arrive...
This part of Eastwood’s limber narrative is entertaining and charming: watching Earl sing old-time songs while tootling across country and taunting/beguiling gangbangers during his pick-ups and drops, while DEA agent Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper) tries to catch the wily old coot. Even the now-standard Heat nod – as cocky quarry and unaware pursuer meet up in a diner and discuss marriage over coffee – tickles. But as the stakes get higher, that goodwill sours as Earl meets the cartel boss (Andy Garcia) and suffers a family bereavement that prompts unearned redemption for being an absent dad and husband at the hands of saintly women.
This is particularly unpalatable when played alongside two different scenes in which Eastwood enjoys semi-clad threesomes with nameless young women, seemingly designed to show what a dude Earl is. It’s also in this final third that script and performance are exposed. Dolnick and co-writer Nick Schenk overreach for a hero’s journey and social commentary; a scene where a Mexican-American driver spouts statistics about race-related deaths when pulled over is tone-deaf.
Meanwhile, the usually reliable Dianne Wiest delivers a career-worst turn. Still, Cooper and fellow DEA man Michael Peña work wonders with clichés, selling macho threats to gangsters and injecting cool into roles that essentially require them to drive around in a plumber’s van.
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- Release date: Out now (US)/January 25, 2019 (UK)
- Certificate: R (US)/15 (UK)
- Running time: 116 mins