With an incredible seven decades in Hollywood, Clint Eastwood has been able to call his shot for a long time now. He’s focused on being a director in the latter stages of his career, though, so it’s a little surprising to see him take a meaningful on-camera role for the first time since 2012 as he stars alongside Bradley Cooper and Dianne West in The Mule, which is based on the true story of Leo Sharp.
After a lifetime spent on the road, traveling from show to show, Earl Stone (Eastwood) finds his home foreclosed and family estranged, leaving him as an 80-plus-year-old man with nothing but an old truck to his name. While visiting his granddaughter, the only family member that has remained in touch, Earl is approached by one of her guests, who suggests he knows of work for a safe, inconspicuous driver.
Desperate for money, Earl agrees and transports a small amount of drugs for a Mexican cartel from Texas to Illinois. He proves highly effective in the role, prompting the cartel to give him more and more cargo, and with the payouts increasing exponentially Earl continues to do the work. He’s eventually given a handler, Julio (Ignacio Serricchio), who initially takes exception to Earl’s meandering ways but eventually forms a bond.
As Earl’s renown as a drug mule continues to grow, DEA Agents Bates (Cooper) and Trevino (Michael Pena) develop an informant within the cartel and start looking to crack down on illegal drugs entering Chicago. Armed only with a code name and a description of the vehicle, the agents are closing in at a time when changes within the cartel also spell bad news for Earl’s future.
With Eastwood involved he pretty much gets to call his shot, which results in a lot of well known and accomplished performers up and down the cast. Eastwood is enjoyable in the main role, even if playing some of the racially insensitive stuff for laughs is a questionable choice — he’s not racist, that’s just how things were when he was young, get it? Even at his age, Eastwood carries a presence that few can match.
Bradley Cooper and Michael Pena are good in their roles as DEA agents trying to stem the flow of illegal drugs, injecting some humour via their interactions with reluctant informant Luis (Eugene Cordero). With Eastwood abandoning much of the brevity he displayed in other recent work it’s disappointing that duo wasn’t given more screen time.
With all the “road trips” Earl embarks on, The Mule gets to show off a lot of pretty scenery and offer a taste of what driving across America is like, which is something we always find appealing. There’s also a leisurely pace to everything, and as long as you don’t go in looking for action (there’s almost none) it can be rather enjoyable.
As has been his wont in recent years, Eastwood has found a real-world story that tickled his fancy and turned it into a film. He doubtless takes more liberties with the source material here than he did with Sully or 15:17 to Paris, but again he’s left to stretch a limited amount of content across a feature-length movie.
Within that we end up with a lot of isolated scenes that feel unnecessary. Earl offers some advice to lesbians trying to fix a motorcycle, pulls over to help an African-American family change a tire, dines with his handlers in a place where they’ve apparently never seen Hispanics before and so on. All of these scenes seemingly exist so Earl can lightheartedly call them an inappropriate name, only to be corrected and cheerfully move along.
THE BONUS FEATURES
A fairly standard “making of” is one of just two extras, running about 10 minutes and mostly featuring commentary about Eastwood interspersed with behind the scenes footage. The other is a music video from Toby Keith, which actually includes some scenes that didn’t make it into the final cut, so it’s worth watching.
While certainly not among Eastwood’s best efforts, The Mule is well acted and does enough right to be worth watching.